August 01, 1986

Iron Failings

Essington Lewis: I am Work
by John O’Donoghue
State Theatre Company
The Playhouse

John O’Donoghue’s acclaimed Essington Lewis: I Am Work has been included in the State Theatre Company’s current season after the late scratching of Jonah Jones from the 1986 card.

Essington Lewis was first performed by the Hunter Valley Players in 1981, and enjoyed a highly successful season in Sydney last year. But the present production has not just been parachuted in from the East. West Australian actor Geoff Gibbs has been brought in to take over the lead role and Terence Crawford and Louise Blackwell have come from State and Magpie respectively.

The story of Essington Lewis echoes Thomas Carlyle’s notion of work as worship, and there is more than a dollop of the Yankee self-made ethic as well. Lewis, the industrial functionary, praised by his superiors for his ‘nonpareil dullness’, oversaw the transformation of BHP from the world’s richest quarry to a major iron and steel producer. His life spanned the late Victorian period to 1961, thus including two highly profitable World Wars and a ruthless Depression. Which takes us to some vexing aspects about our steel-driving man.

Lewis is a kind of Aussie Krupp, whose formative years were spent on a sheep station at Dalhousie Springs before being recalled in lumpy adolescence for finishing at St. Peter’s College, Adelaide. From the School of Mines he went to the school of hard knocks in the BHP mines at Broken Hill. This was the period when Lewis can be said to have done a spot of physical work, but his collusion with management in discrediting a penalty claim from fellow workers ensured his rise up the ranks of BHP. From this point, considering the state of labour relations and Lewis’s unyielding management; the play could be better titled: I am Slave Driver, because all we seem to see is Essington bullying workers, writing letters to coal companies and watching a procession of BHP board members getting it in the shoulder blades.

The play, while not stinting in its references to BHP’s callous use of labour, nevertheless focuses our attention so completely on this doughty captain of industry that it almost inevitably creates audience identification with Essington’s hard yakka and the wistfully regretted lost opportunities his his personal life, and as a result, the play is rather too short on the pig ironies.

I Am Work is reminiscent of Nicholas Nickleby, not only in its theatrical dash but because it shares the same notion of Cheeryble capitalism that if only the steel mill were tempered with a little kindness, everything would be hunky-dory.

Essington, always busy with slide rule and abacus, apparently has no time to hold a torch for Madge Elliott, his nearly paramour; let alone enjoy any of the other spoils of managerial success. In the best Dickensian tradition, it is Taffy Williams, the plucky little navy who has lost an assortment of limbs and an eye on the battlefields of Europe and BHP, Newcastle, who we are asked to believe has truly drunk from life’s rich cup. Taffy is poor but happy, exploited but indomitable. ‘Cheer up old girl,’ he says to his loving wifey, as yet another character-building tribulation rains down on them.

O’Donoghue greatly weakens the political force of the play in subscribing to the reassuring fantasy that the board room set are too busy having heart attacks about the Dow Jones industrial average to have fun like the cheerful proles can.

All that said, this play has much to commend it. Aarne Neeme’s direction has an assurance and pace that makes Essington Lewis a significant theatrical success. Brian Nickless’s original set has been trucked in for the event, including an iron horse made of metal tubing which serves as a powerful visual link between Lewis senior, the grazier; and workhorse Essington presiding over the lighting of the BHP blast furnace in 1915 – a scene consummately handled by John Comeadow, whose crisp, if occasionally beatific lighting is a reminder yet again that he is one of the best in ‘the country.

Geoff Gibbs gives a strong performance as Lewis, convincing both as Essington the eager youth and dour· octogenarian. The ensemble is generally strong Jonathan Biggins is energetic and versatile as the Mad Prophet lured by the fleshpots of Oodnadatta and the eccentric Irishman Bowes Kelly, among other roles. David Wood is nicely droll as Taffy Williams, but it is John Doyle’s performance which is perhaps most satisfying. As the ramrod John Lewis whose iron will was to galvanise that of his son Essington, and as Guillaume Delprat, the brilliant but ruthless Dutchman who steered BHP’s path to steel-making, Doyle’s stage presence is striking and memorably quirky.

Mention must also be made of Allan McFadden’s distinctive music, particularly the opening song, launching an exceptional production, which though at times lacking pungency and sufficient shaping, nevertheless reminds us of the pleasures of confident and imaginative staging.

“Iron Failings” The Adelaide Review, No.29, August, 1986, p.20.

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