Audio drama has a long and luminous history. So why does the MTC’s Audio Lab turn away from…theatre? Robert Reid reports
For Australian theatre, the turn to online performance has been a long time coming. I discuss why I think that is in my Witness essay for BLEED 2020, so I won’t repeat the argument. But as the pandemic forces performance online, it’s been interesting to observe who has approached the task with imagination and confidence and who hasn’t.
As their first few steps into this new territory, the Melbourne Theatre Company gives us the MTC Audio Lab, beginning with Great Australian Speeches, a podcast series which they describe at the top of each episode as “Theatre for your ears”. Given such a tag, it’s surprising how little theatre there actually is in these recordings. The readings and some of the works have a flatness that perhaps comes from the texts that were chosen. Poetry and political speech have different cadences: one calls for lyricism, the other for professionalism. In the hands of the MTC Audio Lab team, neither make for great drama.
It’s a bit infuriating really. Although digital broadcasting is a new(ish) thing, radio drama isn’t. Its problems have long been solved, it potentials long capitalised on. The greats of the era make it a form full of imagination and surprise – Orson Welles’ Theatre of the Air, Samuel Beckett’s radio plays, The Goon Show all use the radio play format to great effect. MTC’s Audio Lab… doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong: I think audio broadcasting is a great idea and I’m glad our theatre companies are at last beginning to see that their work doesn’t have to be solely in the theatre. I’ve long thought the major companies should be experimenting with the internet as a performance space, offering the same kind of possibilities – and more – as live radio and television did in its heyday. But there’s a puzzling lack of actual theatre writing here. Do Australian playwrights not write good speeches? Or did the company just not want to pay for them?
In the first five or six episodes of Great Australian Speeches, there’s almost nothing but the actor’s voice with a bit of reverb to give a sense of space and an applause track at the end (which starts to feel more and more disingenuous each time you hear it). Radio plays give you the opportunity to do the impossible with the simple addition of sound effects. Isn’t that one of the most fun things about radio plays, the way the foley artists create all those sounds live?
The series, mostly of work that’s out of copyright, is directed by MTC associate director Petra Kalive, who introduces the works with some brief background information. This situates each piece in its historical context, which is important, but I find I’m wishing for a little more analysis. Or at least a brief dramaturgical, political or critical context that might help us understand better: why this speech, why now?
The first in the series is Banjo Paterson’s ballad The Man from Snowy River. The choice is telling: it reveals a lot about who the MTC thinks might be listening. It also tells us a lot about how they see Australia. The MTC not only heads the bill with a white man, but also reaffirms outdated ideas of what Australia is.
For instance, Kalive says of The Man from Snowy River that, “(t)he poem was written at a time when Australia was developing a distinct identity as a nation”. That’s not untrue, of course, since Australia is always developing a distinct identity as a nation, although not always in positive directions. However, the idea that The Man from Snowy River captures the “real” Australia of the time is a furphy.
Paterson – along with his other White Australia Policy-promoting Bulletin magazine colleagues – rarely set foot outside Sydney. Then, as now, the majority of Australia’s population lived in the coastal cities. The Man From Snowy River is a fantasy of what Australia was and is: a masculine, taciturn, proud, strong and independent nation. The poem (and the identity it foists upon Australians), as nostalgic as it is and as foundational to the development of colonial Australian literature as it was, has about as much to do with the reality of the Australian experience as Gone with the Wind had to do with the reality of the American experience.
I suspect that jumping off with a poem that will be dear to many of the older members of the MTC audience is a tactical programming decision. I wonder how many of them will be listening to it on Spotify. Mark Cole Smith’s reading is distractingly sing-song, reading to the rhyme and metre rather than the meaning, which makes it hard to follow and parse. He makes a decent fist of sounding passionate and lyrical, but this gives the sound of his voice a breathy quality that doesn’t improve matters.
The following episode presents the 1943 maiden parliamentary speech of the first Australian woman elected to the senate, Dame Dorothy Tangney. Tangney gains this honour almost simultaneously with Dame Enid Lyons who was elected to the House of Reprentatives the same year and was sworn in six minutes after Tangney. Dame Enid gets her maiden speech presented in the series as well, performed by Marg Downey two episodes later. It makes me wonder, did these remarkable women never say anything again after their first day? Was this all there was of them on record?
An ALP member, Tangney begins her speech by praising the armed forces, at this time still deeply engaged in the Second World War. For obvious reasons this was a more militaristic and nationalistic time, and the sentiments Dame Tangney expresses spoke directly to the millions of Australians with loved ones fighting in the war. These days, as militarised police murder people of colour in America, as Indigenous Australians die in custody, as the Morrison Government does its best to distract us from their terrible job of governing by sabre rattling at China, it feels tone deaf to be praising the mechanisms and weaponry of authority.
This gradually pivots as Tangney begins to describe the discipline and the “policy of regimentation imposed on the Australian people” during the war effort. It’s hard not to reflect on how poorly managed the policies of regimentation that we’ve been placed under during the pandemic have been and how selfishly many of us have been in response.
It’s not the most rousing speech, I might add. Izabella Yena does a good job of sounding like a serious young politician, but there’s little drama to it. It’s a fairly no nonsense description of the social challenges facing the country in the day, the significance of this speech being not the beauty of the writing but the moment it represents. Unquestionably the first woman elected to the Australian Senate is an important moment to mark in our history; but this series is supposed to showcase “great” speeches. I’m not convinced this is one of them.
Next are three works by an award-winning Mununjali writer Ellen van Neerven, selected from their second poetry collection, Throat, which was released this year. They’re read by Leonie Whyman. “White Excellence” is a particularly strong poem, ending with the terrifically memorable description of white Australians as “permanent visitors”. Politicians Having Long Showers on Stolen Land is also very enjoyable for its depiction of ministers sweating and changing suits on their official visits to Country (it also takes an excellent turn to language towards the end, which it doesn’t feel compelled to translate for the ignorant).
But I’m starting to notice a strange flatness to these readings. Maybe it’s the close mic’d delivery, or maybe it’s the studio-recorded radio play conditions of the podcast, but everything is starting to sound the same. They’re delivering more like newsreaders than actors. It’s very strange to listen to the passionate words of a writer like van Neerven delivered in the subdued – maybe restrained is a better word – performance of the reading. Whyman manages to find some subtlety and shade in the performance, but I still feel I’m listening to a tone that sounds much the same as the previous two performances.
I’ll finish here with Faith Bandlers address to the Talkin’ Up the Reconciliation convention of 1999 – Faith, Hope and Reconciliation. Bandler, an Australian civil rights campaigner, was instrumental in the 1967 Referendum on the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the Australian Population census. This was a time of great social movement in Australia (and around the world) and the Referendum became a kind of symbol of the land rights activism, freedom rides and equal pay campaigns of the day. It seems hard to believe, given the tenor of the current times, that over 90 percent of the population of this country voted in favour of the resolution. I worry that we’re a more divided nation now than we were then.
Thirty-odd years after the referendum, Bandler was still campaigning for the recognition and rights that the Referendum promised. Her 1999 speech, performed again by Leonie Whyman, is suffused with the frustration and exhaustion of fighting all your life and knowing the fight will go on after you are dead. It’s powerful stuff and it allows Whyman to sink her teeth into the performance. It’s the first time in the series I’ve felt any kind of deep connection to the text being spoken: there’s passion in these words and Whyman finds and frees it.
It’s a bit concerning that in the first five episodes the two Indigenous women are played by the same actor, while all the white characters are performed by different actors. I can’t help feeling this was maybe a little careless. It’s early in the series – later Shareena Clanton reads a speech by Dr Lowitja Lois O’Donoghue as well as her own writing – so perhaps it’s simply rushed. Either way, it feels uncomfortably homogenising. It’s laudable that the effort was made to ensure that these Indigenous texts were performed by an Indigenous actor, but is it really laudable to do the bare minimum?
Subsequent episodes also present speeches by Jack Patten, John Curtin, Miles Franklin, Ned Kelly (at least, thank god, it wasn’t the Jerilderie letter), Dame Nellie Melba, Robert Menzies and Vida Goldstein.
Next up is a reading of Henry James’ classic horror novel, The Turn of the Screw, directed by associate artistic director Sarah Goodes. Again, not quite theatre. The Audio Lab project has the makings of something really good, but as it stands it’s a bit blinkered. I’d like to see more rigor. And certainly more imagination.
Great Australian Speeches. Works covered in this review written by A.B. “Banjo” Patterson, Dame Dorothy Tangney, Ellen van Neerven and Faith Bandler, directed by Petra Kalive. Performed by Marc Cole Smith, Izabella Yena and Leonie Whyman. MTC Audio Lab.Online at the Melbourne Theatre Company website.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that MTC Audio Lab articles and recordings contains names, imagery and words of deceased persons.