Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


Playing Australia. Australian theatre and the international stage
Elizabeth Schafer & Susan Bradley Smith, eds.
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.
EUR 50.00, 230 pages with plates, ISBN 9042008172

Susan Ballyn
Universitat de Barcelona


If one is judge a book by its cover or editors, then this one is to be looked at seriously as it is edited by two well-known figures in the field of Australian Theatre Studies: Elizabeth Schafer and Susan Bradley Smith. Furthermore, the contributors similarly arouse one's interest: Susan Croft, Helen Gilbert, Michael Billington, Julian Meyrick and Richard Cave, to name only a few.

The editors state that among the various aims of this collection of essays one is to find out why "Australia suffers from being dominantly imagined more in geographical, natural and physical terms rather than conceptual and creative ones" [2]. While this states the obvious, it is true to say that the question has never been fully addressed within the context of Australian theatre. There are, however, other aims put forward by the editors in the introduction, which I personally find much more challenging, interesting and stimulating for the reader.

Collectively, the essays in this book ask what Australian drama is, has been and might be, both to Australians and non-Australians, when performed in national and international arenas. Careful attention has been paid to the complexities of nationalism versus internationalism and the power of culture. [2]
Playing Australia also seeks to raise a wide range of questions by playing with the notion of what 'playing Australia' might be, including playing in Australia, Australians playing away from home; playing with Australian stereotypes; and the relationship between culture, politics and national identity; all insisting on the complexities of Australian experiences. [3]

Again, one might be tempted to think that this is yet another study which is going to go the round-about of the interminable debates regarding nationalism, internationalism, stereotypes and identity, whiteness and otherness prevalent in so much work by and about Australians. It does delve into such matters, but in refreshing, interesting and useful ways applicable to studies other than drama. The essays are wide ranging and based on a whole array of critical approaches resulting in a multifaceted study examining such concerns as the "productions of Shakespeare in Australia which have used Aboriginal identity to rewrite and newly politicize Shakespeare's plays" [5] school and college drama or pageant, the impact of expatriate Australian theatre practitioners such as the suffrage worker Inez Bensusan in London, negotiations of Australianness via the London stage, the analysis of Tap Dogs among others, ending with an interview with the internationally renowned Cate Blanchett. The essays have been blocked out into sections:"Playing Australia to Australia,""Playing Australia Abroad: Colonial Enactments," "Playing Australia Abroad: the Late Twentieth Century," which, in a loose sense, create a thematic and chronological framework.

This is indeed a book to be taken seriously by anybody interested in Australian theatre, Anglo-Australian cross cultural theatrical relationships and cultural studies in general. It is, I believe, an essential contribution to the study of Australian drama and indispensable for students, teachers and researchers working in the area of Australian drama and literature. Much as I would like to give a breakdown of all the contributions to this splendid edition, it is beyond the scope of this review. What I intend to do is to use the abstracts that precede each essay so that readers may glean there the contents of the work. I will, however, take a closer look at some of the essays as they clearly demonstrate the range that this book covers.

In Part one, "Playing Australia to Australia" Helen Gilbert "offers a group of widely divergent plays where white Australianess plays alongside Aboriginal and Asian identities as 'agonistic elements in the constitutive field of Australian Nationalism'" [5] in her essay "Millennial Blues" [12-28]. Gilbert discusses Randolph Bedford's White Australia or The Empty North (1909) in the context of the underlying anxieties of establishing a solid Australian identity within both the historical context of the time and its ongoing presence in Pauline Hanson's racist discourse. In a play cluttered with racial stereotypes of Asian evil versus Anglo good, the emphasis on "whiteness," she argues, not only displays these anxieties but, in a contemporary "recuperative" postcolonial reading, actually leads to its visibility. Drawing on Dyer's discussion of "extreme whiteness," Gilbert argues that the kind of "extreme whiteness" present in Bedford's play "leaves a residue through which whiteness becomes visible as a racial marker rather than simply passing as an invisible, disinterested normative category" [17]. This reassessment of White Australia allows for the recuperation of a normatively colonial work within the paradigm of a postcolonial subversive narrative of empire.

Mona Brand's Here Under Heaven (1948) also gives Gilbert room for interesting readings running counter-current to the text itself. Essentially Brand's play, as Gilbert points out, seems to "anticipate the 1970's policy switch to official multiculturalism" [20]. The main drive of the play suggests that multiculturalism is the result of cross-cultural interaction which cannot be achieved while racial prejudices undertow society. Here Gilbert calls for caution given that "the implied proposition that tolerance will lead to a genuinely democratic nation troubles [her] in a number of ways" [20]. Drawing on Ghassan Hage's argument that "racial tolerance" is "the flip side to racism in so far as it is "never a passive acceptance, a kind of 'letting be,' but rather an action that always presupposes control over an object of tolerance" [20], Gilbert proceeds to unpick Brand's play along these lines while also discussing the ways in which Here Under Heaven shares Bedford's visibilisation of whiteness, in this case endangering it through miscegenation. However, Gilbert points out that the play's disruptive potential in the "nation-building process" [22] is actually undermined by the fact that the audience/reader does not access the hybrid results of interracial sex.

Brand's play is followed by a discussion of Louis Nowra's adaptation of Xavier Herbert's seminal work Capricornia, one of the various 1988 bicentennial projects. The choice of this work is a particularly good one given that it affords a stimulating follow on and development of the themes hinted at in Brand's play. Gilbert carefully examines "Capricornia's treatment of Anglo-Celtic versions of whiteness and their functions within a counter hegemonic narrative of nationhood that had particular significance at the time of celebratory national self-imagining occasioned by the Bicentenary" [22]. Here the discussion of "whiteness" underscored its instability in a play which reveals a society on the cusp of transition towards a form of national belonging which is increasingly Asian and Aboriginal informed. As Gilbert concludes, Nowra's work "staged an alternative image of the nation, one inflected by an acute awareness of the ways in which racial tensions have shaped our history" [23].

Gilbert uses David Williamson's After the Ball (1977) to demonstrate the way in which narratives/plays which appear critical of racism, both past and present, actually further inflect the "fantasy of a white nation." While After the Ball does address multiculturalism, it actually reinforces the centrality of Anglo-Australians, leading Gilbert to center her reading of Williamson's conservative narrative as a "commentary on the republican debate leading up to the 199* referendum" and as a reflection of the "ambivalence and confusion that characterized many Australians' approach to the referendum" [25]. Helen Gilbert concludes her essay by suggesting that the constant merry-go-round discussions of race must move forward and that "Our theatre's challenge for the new millennium is to create paths through this ideological impasse, to dilute the cultural power of whiteness by embracing heterogeneity and difference" [26].

Susan Croft's essay "'A new untravelled region in herself': women's school plays in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Australia" [29-42] moves into an area of drama/performance which has received scant attention, Croft points out that:

Women's plays written for school performance in turn-of-the century Australia exhibit a wide range of feminist politics which deserve critical attention. In addition these plays rewrite existing narratives and become a space to propose specifically Australian models of womanhood, drawing a discourse of pioneering colonial development as distinct from British models. [29]

One of the rewritings that Croft looks at in a most enlightening and interesting way is that of Tennyson's The Princess which was rewritten in various ways in both Australia and Britain.

Croft's essay is followed by Julian Meyrick's "Sightlines and bloodlines: the influence of British theatre on Australia in the post-1945 era" [43-63], which provides a fascinating analysis of the way in which the influence of British theatre ebbed and flowed in the post-1945 era. The relationship has been and is a complex one as Meyrick observes:

Since 1945 the impact of Britain on Australian theatre has swung between extremes of enthusiastic emulation and fierce rejection, marbled by a complexity not captured by simple notions of cultural dominance and/or subservience. However, unpicking the Gordian knot of this relationship is difficult given the ubiquity of many of its crucial manifestations. One way of avoiding gross generalization is to focus on one type of empirical referent: articles in professional theatre magazines ('the trades'). By examining publications such as Trust News, Theatre Australia and Real Time for both the kinds of articles carried and their quantity, conclusions can be drawn about the nature and degree of British influence on Australian theatre in the post-War period. [43]

Meyrick's study ranges thoroughly through the post-war period but also takes stock of contemporary material into the 90s to conclude that "The influence of British theatre on Australian theatre becomes, through a series of Archimedean intellectual pulleys, the retooling of a European artistic legacy to service an at times anxious, at times energetic, rethinking of national imaging and related cultural activism" [58].

Elizabeth Schafer takes a most interesting slant on representations of Shakespeare in Australia by looking at the Aboriginal presence in and behind productions in "Reconciliation with Shakespeare? Aboriginal presence in Australian Shakespeare production" [62]. While premising her essay with productions of Shakespeare that had relocated their scenarios to identifiably Australian contexts, she moves on to analyze 90s productions which included "a clearly identifiable Aboriginal presence" [64]. The analysis ranges over a series of productions in which Aboriginals play key roles, including Noel Tovey's ground breaking production of the all Aboriginal Midsummer Night's Dream (1997). As Tovey himself stressed, Midsummer Night's Dream offered huge scope for a replaying of Shakespeare within an indigenous landscape for "Who understands the words dream and dreaming more than the Aborigines?" [68]. Schafer concentrates the main part of her essay on the works produced during the 90s and the increasing political agendas of these productions in a decade when reconciliation and indigenous/non-indigenous relations became a national issue. Schafer demonstrates how during this decade Shakespeare "seems to have offered a high-profile and yet also helpfully alien context in which Australian theatre could speak of reconciliation" [75]. Schafer's essay is important in that it opens up a field of Shakespearean scholarship which has yet to be fully examined: the reworking/playing of Shakespeare by indigenous actors and producers as a means of voicing and “visiblising” themselves on the stage while using it as a platform from which to provoke debates on race and race relations. This is a "distinctive take on Shakespeare" and one "that not only invigorates the texts with overt and confrontational politics" but "indubitably plays Australia even as it plays Shakespeare" [75].

Part ll, "Playing Australia abroad: colonial enactments" [80-141] opens with Peta Tait's study of circus high-wire walkers Ella Zuila (1854-1926) and George Loyal, Zuila being actually the centre of her study. Again we encounter the strength of this book, its insistence on looking at drama, performance and performers that have largely been set aside from mainstream critical studies. Tait's "'The Australian Marvels': wire-walkers Ella Zuila and George Loyal, and geographies of circus gender body identity" [80-92] “investigates the cultural language of gender and geographical body identities in death-defying performance spaces. Zuila was performing an idea of Australia within the British Empire. Her act was timely given a cultural imaginary that associated Australia with the risky frontier stretches of the Empire, and ideas of conquering new territory" [80]. Tait's study of Ella Zuila is followed by Katherine Newey's essay on actress and playwright May Holt, another figure "overlooked by the dominant model of Australian theatre history" [93]. "When is an Australian playwright not an Australian playwright? The case of May Holt" [93-107] sets out to explore not just the extent to which May Holt's work demonstrates the way in which "the Australian theatre industry was internationalist and open to exchange with Britain and America" and "not simply dominated by an oppressive colonialist ideology or an Australian cultural cringe" [93], but also to look at the way Australian theatre is remembered and at May Holt's place in the history of Australian theatre. Newey concludes her study by defining Holt as "an Anglo-Australian playwright who 'wrote back' to the British Empire" [105] whose success derives from the "interchange between Britain and Australia" [105] which moves her work well beyond the anchylosed paradigm of colonial oppression or A. A. Phillips' famous Australian cultural cringe. By reaching this conclusion, Newey not only affords Holt, and by extension other dramatists like her, a continuing space and voice in Australian theatre but also postulates a much wider and vibrant vision of "colonial enactments" which allows for a flow of interaction between Britain and Australia and signals the need for a critical reassessment by theatre historians.

According to the editors in their introduction, Newey's study should be followed by Susan Bradley Smith's essay on Inez Bensusan, thus offering a logical sequence with three essays on women and theatre/performance. This actually does not happen, and the discursive pattern is broken by the misplacing of Elizabeth Schafer's essay on Haddon Chambers and Gilbert Murray.

In “Inez Bensusan, suffrage theatre’s nice colonial girl” [126-141] Susan Bradley Smith moves beyond a mere analysis of the work of actress, producer and playwright Inez Bensusan, to offer a broader picture of her contribution to the women’s suffrage movement and women’s theatre in London where she lived. As the editors suggest “This essay raises wider questions about the impact of expatriate Australian theatre practitioners and their influence on the development of British theatre, and in Bensusan’s case suggests that British feminist theatre has not yet fully acknowledged these significant developments” [6]. As Bradley Smith points out “It can only be said that the legacy of her pioneering efforts continues today” [139]. Bradley Smith’s essay, like so many others in this collection, thus demands a historical revisioning of Bensusan and her work and of that by others like her.

Elizabeth Schafer’s “A tale of Two Australians: Haddon Cambers, Gilbert Murray and the imperial London stage” [108-125] offers a study of these two playwrights/performers in the context of the metropolis and its theatre, to reveal how, although Australia and Australiannesss only appear overtly in their work, they were actually able to continue “to discuss Australia, empire and colonial life [...] even in disguise” [123]. Being in London in a way prevented either of them from identifying as Australians, both as individuals and in their work; thus “Both Chambers and Murray offer striking, contrasted and, in their own period, high-profile contributions to the discussion of what playing Australia might be” [123].

Part lll “Playing Australia abroad: the late twentieth century” [144-218] opens with Michael Billington’s essay enticingly titled “Cricket and theatre: Australians observed” [144-158]. However, much as I enjoy Billington’s work, I find that this essay does not actually really contribute anything particularly new to the main thesis of the collection. The comparison of the reception of Australian cricket and theatre in Britain at first seems interesting but Billington’s analysis of the reception of Australian drama does not seem to move much beyond the usual patronizing critical response of the many critics he cites. That his own view is entirely different is obvious and it is perhaps this which should have been at the forefront of his comparison between the two arts.

Richard Cave tackles Tap Dogs in “What price a global culture? (or can you hope to clone a Tap Dog?)" [159-179]. "The international success of Tap Dogs is analysed alongside material taken from an interview with Wayne Harrison, the show’s producer. It is argued that the globalization of Tap Dogs produced complex and new meanings for the show, but that successive cloned productions took the event further and further from its Australian origins, and diluted important questions raised by earlier versions of the show including questions about homosociality and homosexuality” [159]. The dialectics of this essay is enhanced enormously by the incorporation of the interview with Australian Wayne Harrison and the English academic Richard Cave’s analysis of different critics' views on Tap Dogs thereby creating a multifaceted dialogue on how the show underwent changes in its various productions outside Australia until it actually ceased to represent or be Australian. The answer to the title’s question “What price a global culture?” would seem to be "a very high one" given that as each nation adapted the work to their own cultural perspectives it ceased to be Australian.

Cave’s essay leads nicely into Margaret Hamilton’s discussion of “The relationship between European presenters and producers, and the strategies of Australian policy makers abroad” [181]. “International fault-lines: directions in contemporary Australian performance and the new millennium” [181-194] focuses specifically on musical theatre in repertoire and on Performing Lines The Theft of Sita and the Elision Ensemble’s Moon Spirit of Feasting among others. The article does not deal with a pan-European view but with the policies of marketing and playing Australia in Germany as distinct from Britain, though by extension all the conclusions reached are applicable across Europe, and, one suspects, not just Europe. As with Cave’s argument, the question is, what may happen to a show when it tours abroad, how will it be marketed, promoted and received? These preoccupations in Hamilton and Cave’s essays are readdressed in Susan Bradley Smith’s “Rhetoric, reconciliation and other national pastimes: showcasing contemporary Australian theatre in London” [195-211]. As always, Bradley Smith’s essay is concise, profound and stimulating. She follows the reception of Cloudstreet in London (1999) and the "Heads Up: Australian Arts come to London” Festival (2000). Her conclusion is not unexpected for those familiar with the reception of Australian Theatre/ performance in Britain. What continues to prevail, unfortunately, is a reception bound within the colonial paradigm. With "Heads Up," what drew the closest attention among all the plays staged were the three “Aboriginal” plays: Stolen Box, The White Pony, and White Baptist Abba Fan. The implications of the emphasis among the British critics and London audience on the indigenous over and above all other representations is quite clear:“offshore audiences are not as interested in our diversity as we [Australia] are” [205]. It suggests that only the Aboriginal is unique and “captivates,” the rest, Bradley Smith suggests, is perceived as “second-rate” [205]. As a result it would seem that in the postcolonial relationships between England and Australia, England prefers the exotic “other” and this I find both true and profoundly disturbing.

The collection of essays ends with an interview of actress Cate Blanchett. While it is interesting that it should relate to the thematic concerns of Part lll, it does not constitute the kind of strong conclusion that this book warrants. The reader is left feeling somewhat let down with this interview and I personally would have preferred some kind of concluding chapter summarizing the conclusions which spring from the thirteen essays. Part of this is actually done in the Introduction but would have been better relocated here at the end.

All in all, this book is to be recommended strongly in so far as it is a vital contribution to the history of Australian theatre and performance.



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.