When I started at Sydney University in 1973 I hadn’t heard of Patrick White. We read The Burnt Ones in English I, and as I sat high up in the gothic cubbyholes above the quadrangle in my weekly tutorial with Peter Shrubb—a sweet man and one of the last Leavisites hanging on to the Great Tradition—there didn’t seem to be a lot to say about P.W.
Then he won the Nobel Prize, and suddenly he was in focus.
Angela, a voluptuous Greek Australian with large pores and eyes blackened with kohl (and one of those little segmented silver fish that dangled between her breasts and twitched as she flicked her hair), was contemptuous: ‘Patrick White—sitting up there so smug in Centennial Park! Why doesn’t he own up to being homosexual instead of taking it out on all the women in his books!’ A young homosexual myself, my interest was piqued. How does she know? When I found out later that she was having a raging affair with one of the star lotharios of the English Department teaching staff, the provenance of her contempt became clearer.
I read, and later taught, The Solid Mandala. Immediately I sensed a river of meaning, and I was swimming in it.
In my Youth Subscription to the Old Tote (precursor to the Sydney Theatre Company) there were some remarkable Patrick White nights—all delivered by Jim Sharman. First in 1976 there was The Season at Sarsaparilla with Kate Fitzpatrick, Robyn Nevin, Max Cullen and Bill Hunter. It cleared my head. Big Toys at the Parade Theatre followed in 1977, with Kate and Max again and Arthur Dignam. As set designer Brian Thomson’s glittering view of Sydney broke open to the ‘black westerly’, it was as if in that inky void an apocalyptic vision of judgement was taking possession of the theatre. And then 1979 brought the great A Cheery Soul. It had a cast larger than the other two plays put together, but it’s Robyn Nevin you remember. From the opening moment when she tore across the stage pulling a white silk half-curtain in her trail, her mouth huge with red lipstick on a white face and open in silent scream or the gape of a painted clown’s head at Luna Park, Australian theatre leapt into the future.
That year I turned twenty-four and got my first professional job. I directed Kerry Walker as Frieda Lawrence opposite Barry Otto as D.H. in David Allen’s Upside Down at the Bottom of the World at Nimrod. Kerry had just starred in Jim’s film of Patrick’s The Night the Prowler. Patrick adored her, and she introduced us. During the run of the play, one night Kerry and I with our friend Simon Burke went to dinner with Patrick and Manoly Lascaris at L’Aubergade, a little brasserie in Cleveland Street near the theatre. I told Patrick how much The Solid Mandala had meant to me. He said it was his favourite—‘Well, that and The Twyborn Affair, but the ones you’ve just finished are always your favourite.’
Patrick made an intervention in my life a few months later. I had directed a new play, Inside the Island, by Louis Nowra and it opened at Nimrod to some interest. It’s the story of an Australian pastoralist family, the Dawsons, who donate tainted flour to a local military garrison. Over the course of a social cricket match the soldiers succumb to a series of increasingly violent hallucinations that end in a rampage of madness, death and arson, burning down the Dawson homestead in the process. The theatre critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, H.G. Kippax, hated the play and slammed it in his review. Patrick, who had been a defender of Nowra’s play Visions against a hostile Kippax review two years earlier during the second (and final) production of Jim Sharman and Rex Cramphorn’s Paris Theatre Company, wrote to the SMH: ‘I must take up the cudgels again for a play I believe has been mistakenly dismissed …’ He went on to defend the play, the production, and in particular its stars—Dinah Shearing, Colin Friels, Paul Chubb and a twenty-five year old Judy Davis.
The Herald didn’t publish the letter. Kippax, an early champion of Patrick’s plays, had turned against his Big Toys, so there was some history there. Kippax was at this time the editorial page editor, so the publishing of a letter by Patrick White would have come directly into his purview. Patrick was furious, and allowed us to publish the letter in the form of an ad that Nimrod paid for in the SMH arts pages. (In an amusing postscript, another of Nowra’s plays, The Precious Woman, opened at Richard Wherrett’s Sydney Theatre Company only weeks later. Patrick hated both play and production. Kippax gave it a glowing review. When Patrick came face to face with him in a foyer at that time, he offered just two words to the critic: ‘Wrong again!’)
United in the trenches by this experience, Patrick and I became friends. He started inviting me to dinner, and the trips to the house at 20 Martin Road, Centennial Park, became one of the patterns of my life for the next decade.
If I wasn’t rehearsing I’d arrive at four—after their siesta—and join Patrick and Manoly for the walk with the dogs. There was Eureka (Patrick’s dog: ‘She’s a terrible shit-eater, so we have to watch her’), Pansy the pug, and Nellie (later Millie), Manoly’s Jack Russell terrier. We’d cross the road, lift two of the cast-iron spears in the fence that had been loosened from their sandstone base, climb through, and walk for an hour. Back in the house we’d sit and chat over vodka in the front room with the bay window that looked down onto the garden. Patrick sat opposite in his firm Danish armchair, Manoly nearby, and I’d be marooned in the middle of the long, curved, turquoise seventies sofa. Behind me hung a great Stan Rapotec lyrical abstraction, but my view was dominated by Victor Rubin’s huge and fierce Sydney Draught—So, why are we here? with its massive crowd of nudes and spectators fenced by billboards under a cobalt blue sky, and a can of Tooheys smashed into the bottom of the canvas.
They wanted to know everything. Sitting there on the couch I’d talk of my family—of my dad’s life working for Arnott’s and my mum’s reprieve from death at forty-two. I spoke of my eldest brother, Ian, who had died ten years before, and my parents and my brother Ross and how our love had been changed and deepened by loss. I spoke of school and uni and Leonie Kramer and student plays and my lovers and sex. But most of all we’d gossip. Patrick wanted all the theatre stories. He had nicknames for everyone. After recent piercings, Richard Wherrett was ‘Nipples’, while Louis Nowra was ‘Kiama’, Leo Schofield ‘Nosh’, Sidney Nolan ‘Sir Ned Kelly Nolan’ or just ‘Sir Neddy’. John Gaden was ‘Yummy’, Henri Szeps, curiously, ‘The Sex Mat’ (referring, I think, to the thatch of hair Patrick had spied bursting through the top of Henri’s open shirt). Patrick would laugh and wheeze and sometimes talk of London in the thirties: ‘Do you know the name Beatrice Lillie … ?’
Usually Patrick would cook, so he’d be in and out of the kitchen, and Manoly would talk of their life in Castle Hill, and Patrick running off to the theatre, and dogs, and Alexandria and Athens before the war. When dinner was ready we’d cross the hall past the dark, golden icons, through the long dining room with its big Michael Ramsden and a painting of a woman in a hat that Patrick said reminded him of his mother, and into the kitchen at the back of the house. We’d sit around the table and all conversation would stop while the 7 pm news played on the wireless. ‘The Stories’, Patrick called it and he would huff and snort as reports of the latest hypocrisies and betrayals filled the room. Patrick had re-engaged with the world—he’d marched against the monorail (how delighted he would be by the plans to pull it down), against uranium and nuclear proliferation. He was involved at grassroots level with the Nuclear Disarmament Party and was cautiously optimistic at the prospect of Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett leading the charge.
We tended to have Greek stews—veal stifatho or goat, or eggplant and lamb moussaka. Patrick would often make a simple zucchini dish (I make it today as ‘Patrick White Zucchini’), where he would crush some garlic into the wooden salad bowl then muddle it with olive oil and salt and slice into it whole steamed zucchini and their heat would absorb the garlicky oil deliciously. And chopped mint? Certainly when I make them.
Dessert would generally be fruit or a slice of kugelhopf from a cake shop in Oxford Street, but on one occasion Patrick made galaktoboureko, if only for the pleasure of saying it. And once, after I said I’d never had kedgeree, and I was interested because of my favourite Girlie Pogson line in Sarsaparilla: ‘At Rosedale, when I was a girl, it was too far for fish. I would have given my hair for a dish of kedgeree’, I came for lunch and Patrick had made kedgeree.
I would always kiss them both goodbye, and they’d get the torch and see me halfway down the winding path to the front gate.
I’m reminded of the story of Sumner Locke Elliott being invited to dinner after he won the award Patrick created, with the Nobel money, for under-recognised writers. They discovered they hadn’t a lot to say to each other and the insecure Sumner sat through a quiet and awkward dinner, waiting for some sign of affection or approval. Finally, down at the gate, stepping onto the street, he heard at last Patrick calling from the top of the path, ‘Come back! Come back!’ Sumner swung around in relief. ‘Yes, Patrick?’ ‘Not you, the dog!’
One time, in mid-1981, I was due at Martin Road on a Sunday and Patrick was going to read Signal Driver to me, the play he’d written for me to direct in Jim Sharman’s great 1982 Adelaide Festival. That is the play, incidentally, that David Marr blames for keeping Patrick from finishing The Hanging Garden. I was also working then with Max Gillies, developing a political burlesque called Squirts, and this morning we’d gone to a breakfast meeting with two of the writers, Tim Robertson and John Romeril, both up from Melbourne. In true Pram Factory style, a joint had been rolled with the coffee and toast, and I arrived at Patrick’s an hour late in a chaotic daze of anxiety. He came to the front door, furious. ‘Your sense of time is going to be the death of us!’
I was ashamed: he was nervous about the ordeal ahead. It was unforgivable. But he forgave me. And I was never late again. Somewhere in a box I have the cassettes of Patrick reading his play—his quavering, husky voice tracing the lifetime relationship of Theo and Ivy Vokes as they age from twenty to fifty to eighty.
We did the plays. Patrick would travel to wherever they were on. I directed Signal Driver three times: the first in Adelaide in 1982—Jim positioned it superbly among Pina Bausch and David Hare’s new A Map of the World and Elisabeth Söderström as Janáček’s Elena Makropoulos. For Patrick it was a triumphant return to the festival after the scandalous rejection of The Ham Funeral by its board of governors exactly two decades earlier.
The following year I directed another production of Signal Driver in Brisbane. Patrick came up for the opening. My eighty-year-old Auntie Maude was there—she was in Brisbane visiting her friend Deirdre. I introduced them in the foyer. Deirdre threw all the force of the Queensland sunshine at him: ‘Oh come on, Patrick! Give us a smile—it’s not that bad!’ Patrick hesitated. ‘I daren’t smile—my teeth might fall out!’ Then, lips gripping the dentures, he laughed and laughed.
And then we did it in Sydney. It was the first play produced from the ground up by Belvoir. We’d bought the theatre the year before (with ten shares, Patrick was the greatest shareholder) in an amazing rush of energy and idealism. We rehearsed in a freezing garage across the road from Belvoir Street (it was destined to become the Green Room at the Opera Centre). At Patrick’s request, Kerry (for whom Patrick had written the female Chorus figure) was this time playing Ivy, to John ‘Yummy’ Gaden’s Theo. I sat next to Patrick on opening night. ‘I haven’t had time to iron my shirt,’ I confessed. He laughed as the houselights went down and said, ‘Your body heat will press it for you.’ It was strange and a bit sexy and more than anything complicit in the daring fun of making theatre.
When Gaden took over the State Theatre Company in Adelaide, Patrick wrote for him his last play. It was about a priapic priest named Danny Shepherd, pastor of the Parish of Budgiwank (an Anglican NSW Central Coast diocese). Its original title, ‘The Budgiwank Experiment’, was changed on Jim Sharman’s advice to the more classical Shepherd on the Rocks. (Patrick was letting his hair down a bit in those last years, and Jim was often there to pin it back up: Patrick had William Yang photograph him in drag for the cover of his 1986 Memoirs of Many in One—Jim persuaded him not to use the photos.) It was a big-cast circus of a show, complete with Kerry and Carole Skinner, Yummy Gaden in the lead, Wendy Harmer (‘She’ll bring in the “now” people’), Geoffrey Rush as Sydney’s villainous Archbishop Bigge, a dwarf, and even Henri ‘The Sex Mat’ got a guernsey. Patrick was used to my rehearsal processes by now—he would be there in rehearsals for all of the first week where I would encourage the cast to investigate the work—Patrick called it ‘little Neily’s search for meaning’. Another playwright would use this week to make rewrites, hearing the characters in the actors’ voices for the first time—not Patrick, who had a more traditional view of the separation of responsibilities. Henri, however, took this week to be essentially a script workshop, and was ready with suggestions of how Patrick could more effectively ‘get the laugh’ by rewriting his lines. Patrick would escape to the railway station for his daily meat pie.
I’d had a big success the year before with my first production for Richard Wherrett’s Sydney Theatre Company: a wild and iconoclastic staging of Wycherley’s great comedy The Country Wife. Kippax’s review in the SMH was apoplectic with rage, and there followed a campaign of letters against his review (that this time Kippax couldn’t dare not to publish), full houses and general acknowledgement that Kippax had lost touch. Embattled, Kippax, it is said, locked himself in his apartment, stopped going out and not long after retired from his long career as the SMH’s theatre critic. Patrick, having wreaked his own revenge on Kippax by parodying him as an anaemic vampire bat in his recent Memoirs of Many in One, watched all this play out with relish. Without having to lift a pen, Patrick saw his old enemy, someone who championed his early plays but had turned on the later ones, dispatched.
Richard asked me what I wanted to direct next, and I suggested Patrick’s first play, The Ham Funeral. The season being planned was for 1988, but as Patrick would have nothing to do with the Bicentenary, the production was scheduled for 1989. There had been no play of Patrick’s at the Sydney Theatre Company since Richard’s appointment nine years earlier—Richard was jealous of Patrick’s affection for Jim Sharman, was aware of Patrick’s dislike and was, I think, desperate for his approval. This production might have provided a thaw. But Patrick was unrelenting. On the first day of rehearsal, with Kerry Walker, Max Cullen, Tyler Coppin, Pamela Rabe and all of the company gathered, Richard made a speech welcoming Patrick while Patrick rummaged in his bag for his eyedrops. It was deliberately rude. I wanted to hit him. On opening night six weeks later, Patrick presented the company with a cake iced with a replica of Dobell’s The Dead Landlord—the painting that had inspired the play. He thanked us all—he said it was the happiest night of his life. He didn’t thank Richard. But Richard wasn’t there; he was in his office, weeping.
Sometimes it was hard to fathom Patrick’s dislikes. Certainly I understood his moral positions: he loathed hypocrites, self-promoters, liars, and once he felt betrayed by someone, that was it, they were dropped. But Richard was none of those things. Patrick thought his work soft, camp, sentimental. I often heard Patrick rail against work he regarded as sentimental. Recalling my mother, and thinking also of Manoly, I asked him once, ‘What’s so wrong with a bit of sentimentality?’ Sitting opposite me in the living room at Martin Road, he fixed me with his clear grey eyes. ‘Sentimentality’, he said finally, ‘is the enemy of Art.’
But in many ways he was generous and forgiving. In the old-fashioned way of the theatre, he was a great gift-giver. After Robyn Nevin’s glorious Girlie Pogson in 1976, Patrick had presented her with a brooch of diamonds. Too poor to insure it, Robyn would nervously take it with her when she travelled. One night when she was staying with friends in Middle Park, it was stolen from her room. Devastated, she faced Patrick’s wrath and confessed that she’d lost it. Patrick passed his judgement: ‘You’re all gypsies and vagabonds!’
He loved giving jewellery. After her performance in his Netherwood, Patrick bought Kerry Walker a one-off avant-garde necklace featuring the complete shell of a large orange crab. Impatient to get it to her, he asked Kerry’s housemate, Netherwood designer Ken Wilby, who was visiting Sydney, to collect it from Martin Road. Ken, in an unusual moment of impracticality borne of the responsibility of his charge, carefully packed the necklace in a padded bag and posted it off to Adelaide. Kerry opened the parcel in Myrtle Bank, South Australia, and poured onto the kitchen table a pile of rather coarse shell grit. She never told Patrick. Or rather, she lied to protect Kenzo. ‘It’s arrived and it’s fabulous.’
I fared rather better. After our Ham Funeral at STC, I started work on a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for Belvoir. Patrick told me he had a gift that he wanted me to wear for the opening. I went to Martin Road and he gave me a box. In it was a long tear-shaped brooch of pink coral, silver and tortoise shell. Beautiful. ‘I designed it.’ he said. ‘It’s a coral reef on an island of tortoise shell set in a silver sea.’ I still have it and wear it sometimes for him.
He loved The Tempest. It was 1990 and he was getting frail, but he came to Belvoir and was let in through the actors’ stage door, which gave him access to his seat without having to negotiate four flights of stairs. I was relieved at his response because his previous venture to the theatre had been to see my production of Tristan und Isolde at the Opera House earlier that year. He had fond memories of Peter Hall’s production in London in the seventies. He didn’t like mine. ‘Well, now you’ve wrecked Tristan for me …’ He never lied. And he loved The Tempest. Perhaps, as John Bell’s Prospero buried his books, broke his staff and was dressed by Gillian Jones’ exquisite Ariel for his return to mortal life, Patrick felt a pang of recognition. It was the last time he went to the theatre.
On one of our last walks with the dogs in Centennial Park, I asked Patrick whether his fourth play, Night on Bald Mountain, might be worth considering for revival. ‘No.’ he said. ‘It’s a dishonest play.’ I had just read it, and said I thought it wonderful. But we walked on and I never talked about it with him again. There was certainly a shadow over it, and I think it was the only one of his plays whose premiere production he hadn’t admired. I knew that the memory of it was coloured by the breakdown of his relationship with John (‘Tilly’) Tasker, the original director. The only time I had really seen Patrick and Manoly fight was when Manoly goaded Patrick about Tasker in front of me: ‘You say you hate him now, Patrick, but you were in love with him!’
Five years after Patrick died, I received the blessing of his agent Barbara Mobbs to direct the revival of this play for State Theatre SA and Belvoir. A play about goats and people, innocence and the corrupting blight of human will, it played brilliantly with a cast including Barry Otto, Gillian Jones, Essie Davis and Carole Skinner, extraordinary as the indomitable Miss Quodling. I have directed ten productions of Patrick’s plays—five of them since his death—and this is the one I really wish he could have seen. And I wish he could have seen Benedict Andrews’ miraculous revival of The Season at Sarsaparilla at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2007. He would have been dazzled.
That is the thing about his plays—they only work in wonderful productions. Patrick knew this, and that is why he was so selective about his directors. And it’s not a case of bad writing needing to be rescued, or papered over; rather the plays present great challenges that need to be overcome. There is something uniquely satisfying in rising to that, and it is why he thought, as Brian Thomson revealed, that the best designs of his plays ignore his own descriptions of the stage. His plays are unlike anything else in the Australian theatre. They have their feet in vaudeville and their heads in the stars, in the vaulted air of the cathedral. They have a crystalline hardness tempered with earth and blood. And the plays will continue to be staged, because he created parts that actors love to play. His characters are clowns requiring the finest to release them. They are comic and tragic, like life. But the language they play with obeys its own poetics. Early in his playwright’s life Patrick faced a challenge about the dialogue in Sarsaparilla: ‘But people don’t talk like that!’ He answered with mischievous poise, ‘They do now!’
From 1985 to 1988 I lived in the attic room of my friend David Marr’s house in Camperdown. During this time, David conceived the idea of writing a biography of Patrick White and I introduced them. It was bound to end in tears, I thought. I assumed Patrick would refuse in any case. ‘No,’ he used to say, ‘is my favourite word.’ But he didn’t refuse. He admired David’s integrity. And his head. And while it didn’t end in tears, towards the end there were some furious calls: ‘When are you going to finish that fucking book?’ followed by the sound of the phone being slammed down.
In 1990 I was in Melbourne, rehearsing a revival of my Playbox production of Michael Gow’s Away, when David called me around 8 am on Sunday 30 September, to tell me that Patrick had died that morning. The biography was finished. Patrick had read it twice. David had given me a copy of the manuscript to take to Melbourne. At the time of his call, I was up to the war years, and Patrick had just met Manoly. I read on slowly; for as long as I could keep turning the pages, Patrick was still alive.