July 20, 1991

Welcoming the Bright (and Dark) World

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


The State Theatre Company is currently in production with a new Australian play. Murray Bramwell talks with playwright Stephen Sewell about his latest monsterpiece -King Golgrutha.

A newly commissioned play is always an event, a new work from Stephen Sewell even more so. For nearly fifteen years Sewell has created very distinctive theatre- beginning with The Father We Loved on a Beach by the Sea, Traitors and Welcome the Bright World and prominently, with plays premiered by the State Theatre Company. In the illuminated days of Jim Sharman’s Lighthouse, State presented The Blind Giant is Dancing and, for the 1986 Festival, Dreams in an Empty City. Both were directed by Neil Armfield and like many of Stephen Sewell’s plays, drew passionate response – from admirers and detractors.

People tend not to be neutral about Sewell, a circumstance which, though painful to the writer in the past, he has learned to live with. King Golgrutha, opening on July 27 with direction by Simon Phillips, music by Ian Macdonald and design by Shaun Gurton, marks a shift in Sewell’s work as the playwright explains-

“My whole career as a writer has been one of finding the forms of naturalism increasingly difficult and chafing under them. I don’t believe I’ve ever written naturalistic plays but they have been easily mistaken for them. The most important break with naturalism was in Dreams but then I found myself in a position where I couldn’t get any more work. Nobody would do that sort of epic piece – there was a problem financing them and some of my colleagues felt unhappy with the direction I was taking into that massive, rhetorical, monstrous realm.

“So I tunnelled away by myself for a long time trying to find a way of doing things I instinctively felt I wanted. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew what I wanted wasn’t like anything I’d done in the past. Somehow life was escaping all my best efforts to catch it so in that personal isolation my writing was becoming more pure and more ambitious. Pure, in that I wasn’t concerned anymore with offending or dividing the audience. I turned myself to the thing itself.”

Sewell describes King Golgrutha as a comedy. Its central character Gutso, played by local actor Peter Dunn, is a colossus of consumption. “Gutso is the id, the unconscious who wants everything,” Sewell explains. “He has no morality and gets everything immediately. He is in conflict with the material world, with the frustration of other people. But they don’t really contain him, he’s constantly bursting forth.”

“While the play has the form of a financial drama or comedy, the main thrust of it for me has something to do with the magnificence of human folly. It is a development from Dreams which was analytical with a strong thread of moral questioning through it. This is beyond that – the evil of the shenanigans is assumed, the details are essentially irrelevant. What I’m trying to do is to locate the ridiculousness of a lot of behaviour within a scheme which doesn’t reduce human beings themselves to atoms and irrelevancies.

“There’d be audience members who might consider it an assault on them and their positions. But I’m not actively interested in that kind of assault. It is not a broad lampoon of entrepreneurs or the capitalist class.

“Gutso has created the world around him and given everybody nicknames- Hunchback, Gloucester, Lady Trollope- they are the goblins of his imagination. The storyline concerns the link between Gutso and the woman Golgrutha (played by Eva Hamburg). Her name is an invention but it is a corruption of Golgotha. She is Gutso’s hill of desolation, his calvary. Golgrutha represents the knowledge of suffering which trails all of us, and if we cared to listen to it, would make us better human beings. As an epigraph to the play I’ve used a quote from Aloysha in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – `Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life ! How good life is when one does something good and just !'”

Using comedy raises new questions for Sewell. In the past he has created vice figures of good and evil. In King Golgrutha his Gutso becomes a sort of lord of misrule.

” My condemnation of him is not always successful because he transcends his own moment of being a murderous, disgusting business operator to becoming a representative of humanity. He is a promethean, Falstaffian figure shouting No against the universal silence. It’s a moralist’s problem that I don’t have an answer for. When you are dealing with figures on a grand scale, if you weight the person with all the significance of human struggle then outright condemnation is a pretty tough view to take. It would be to take the moral stance that human life is absolutely disgusting and that we should all go and hang ourselves.

“There are moments in the play where Gutso appears satanic in his lunacy and it’s amazing watching it because it is so attractive, it is extraordinary to see a being like that and not be repulsed by it. You are drawn by the vivacity, the pride, the ruthlessness of the character. I’m not trying to deny moral responsibility but I’m caught in an area where ordinary values of morality themselves are being challenged.”

A play about greed and power has some reverberation at a time when in this country we are publicly investigating so many consequences of financial adventurism, I asked Stephen Sewell if we have begun to rediscover some ethical standards.

“I don’t think there’s been a substantial change in the moral order in Australia throughout this crisis. There have been some cosmetic attempts to get some sort of code going again but the country is still driven by materialist values. Their time will come again, everyone is hunkered down while business gets a bad press at the moment.”

So is goodness inevitably going to be crucified ? Sewell considers his reply- “If you are asking `is there a moral order ?’ I’m fairly convinced that there isn’t one – or rather, there are too many. I’m not sure you can say one way is better than another. But while some may not have the ultimate seal of approval they can help us make life happier for one another. For instance, large sections of our Judeo-Christian tradition can make valuable contributions to happiness and world peace. I happen to believe in world peace, or rather in people not murdering one another, but finally there may be no value or significance in what I believe in – we are all going to end up in the grave together.”

As ever, Sewell is intrepid in the face of these ultimate, giant-killer questions -and in finding theatrically workable ways of presenting them . Hence, the importance of his collaboration with Simon Phillips. After they worked together in Melbourne- when Phillips directed Dreams in an Empty City- King Golgrutha was commissioned from scratch for a State production. Sewell welcomed the chance. His enthusiasm for Philips’ work is quite apparent.

“What I immediately liked about him was the staginess of his work. He has an ability to create pictures, and he’s fearless. This is very much a play written for him -with lots of theatrical problems. Some of the monstrous scenes, in most hands, would fall apart into absolute chaos. Having him there, plus the work I’ve already done in the past five years and the personal changes that have happened to me, I had a chance to write a play and really let rip.

In rehearsal Sewell sits with his laptop computer, pruning and shaping the lines while the actors deliver them.

“I’ve changed as a writer,” he observes. “I’ve become more confident as time’s gone on, I’m less defensive personally. It’s a real killer for writers, that `this is no longer my play’ attitude towards revision. The problem is that you live with the thing for so long that at the end of the process you know it more intimately than anyone else. You can get into a situation in rehearsal where someone who doesn’t know the play so well will make suggestions that are wrong. Then it’s a question of defending a position or thinking it through properly.

“As we go along, I feel confident that Simon knows the play inside out. We’ll be sitting there watching something and I’ll think something about a line or a performance and two seconds later he’ll say it. It’s amazing to feel someone is exactly on your wavelength.”

Theatre commissions sometimes turn into poisoned chalices for writers. After 1841, Michael Gow was determined to develop new work with smaller companies -well away from the hype of publicity and first nights. Stephen Sewell is less diffident.

“I feel sure that if Simon wasn’t happy with the play he would have pulled the plug on it. I’m not worried about response. My work has always received an ambiguous reception. Of my first play, one major critic wrote of the company presenting it -`La Boite does a disservice to all.’I directed a play called Sister which the reviewer called an unmitigated disaster. I am not unused to being savaged !

“Personally I love using the resources of a state theatre company because they are the only ones who can do the kind of things on the scale that I want to do them. I think that state companies have an absolute responsibility to present new work with the sort of resources they can mount. I have friends in London who have been trying to get my work done at the National Theatre. The position the theatre took was that it was there to encourage British writers not foreigners. Companies in Australia haven’t taken on the same commitment.

Sewell acknowledges that whatever the process or the venue the play in the end has to face the audience. Does he have a sense of who his audience is ?

“I used to have a strong sense of who I was writing for but now my attention has moved away from trying to select an audience. I guess I have the feeling now that my peers are my audience.

With this play there’ll be people who’ll run screaming from the theatre I’m sure. But that’s not intentional, I’m not trying to scandalise them but some won’t be able to deal with it. I’m hoping to engage with audiences who have some kind of concern about their own lives and those of their fellows, who have come along
to experience a dramatic representation of our dilemma as human beings.”

The Advertiser, July 20, 1991, p.7.

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