February in Focus: Playwriting
Now, the final playwright to be showcased in Playwriting Australia’s National Play Festival is Gary Abrahams who wrote an adaptation of Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin for the stage. I really want to get my paws on the novel! Gary also lets us in on all of the great hot spots to hit while in Melbourne!
In the final week of our playwright profile series, we talk to Gary Abrahams, playwright of Therese Raquin, about missing childhoods and fistfuls of Xanax! Plus, if you’re heading to Melbourne for the first time, Gary shares with us his must-sees in the world’s most liveable city!
Passenger: Gary Abrahams
Gary, your play is an adaptation of Zola’s 19th Century novel of the same name, what drew you to this story and what do you think it has to say for our society today?
I read the novel a few years back while living in London. I think I just picked it up for next to nothing at a second hand bookshop and read it in a day or two. I remember being drawn into this dark and psychologically savage world full of selfishness and shadows and thinking that it would make a great play. And lo and behold (more or less immediately) I noticed that the National Theatre were putting on a production of Zola’s play (dramatized by Nicholas Wright) based on his own novel. I liked the production, but thought strongly that it felt very sparse and empty compared to my experience of reading the book. There were so many images and ideas that stayed with me from the book that seemed missing and I wondered if there were a way to flesh it out a bit more, make it somehow more savage and more intricately complex. A couple of years later I was chatting to director, Simon Phillips and I mentioned the work, and he confessed that he really liked it too but had been unable to find a (theatrical) version of it that satisfied him. A while later he suggested I have a crack at it and the MTC commissioned the work in 2011.
I spent a lot of time with both the novel and Zola’s own adaptation of the work while writing my own version of it. I was immensely attracted to all the characters and fascinated with the perverse way they lived their small little lives. Zola himself speaks very clearly about intending the novel as a psychological study of shame and guilt, and how he was fascinated in exploring how two very different energies (Laurent and Therese) might interact when brought together in the way the events in the story allow. I became very fascinated by the psychology of each character, of the pain and hope that fuels them, allowing them to behave in such terrifying and appalling ways. In a way I was drawn to the challenge of trying to create a very detailed, enthralling character-based drama peopled by characters who, in truth, are quite difficult to like. And there is a gothic sensibility and aesthetic to the work that I think is quite tricky to pull off on stage, and which I enjoyed trying to evoke. The world and life of the Raquin’s apartment is very much a character in the play, and I think the architecture of the space has an enormous impact on the characters behaviour.
On another level I’m a big fan of the “well made”’ play and enjoy the challenge of constructing a theatrical narrative that obeys these rules to an extent. Zola’s novel actually doesn’t have big chunks of dialogue to play with, so part of creating this work was about trying to find a language that could both serve the story’s setting (19th Century Paris) while still maintaining a modernity suitable for contemporary performance. I’m really excited about having the work read out loud by actors during the festival, to see if I’ve come anywhere close to achieving this!
I find it hard to guess what a contemporary audience might take away from a play that is so firmly rooted in its period. I think this play speaks very clearly about the nature of guilt and shame. About how guilt can kill a person, slowly rotting their soul the same way that death rots the flesh. On another level I think in the title character of Therese is a portrait of a person who is forced into a life not of their choosing, who must submit to the will of others and who is never allowed the chance to find their own voice. We can all relate to the terror of that circumstance. But the work is a tragedy, in its purest sense, because the very thing that may free Therese from these constraints is what ultimately destroys her. The work also deals strongly with the nature of deceit. I think we live in a society with these firmly held beliefs about truth and honesty and integrity. These ideals, if we are lucky and have relatively decent guardians growing up, are drilled into us from an early age. Yet if we are honest we live our lives navigating our way through hundreds of little deceits every day. Humans are by nature self serving. Everything we do, every choice we make, is driven by self serving impulses. We inevitably become very good liars because one of the ways to get what we want is to convince others to want what we want too. And we do this by learning how to convince others of our “absolute” truth. I know this a very cynical viewpoint, and I’m not entirely of this mindset, but I think this is the point of view Zola takes and the point of view I kept in mind while writing the play.
Therese Raquin is set in Paris, have you ever been there and what are your impressions of the city?
I have been to Paris twice. Once when I was living in Europe and once when I was at VCA to research another novel I was adapting also based in Paris. (James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room). I guess you could say I have a bit of a thing for the city. It’s horribly clichéd. Both times I went it was spring and I seemed to just spend 80% of my time walking around the streets and laneways. The rest of the time was spent drinking wine, smoking Gauloise and trying desperately to blend in. In truth I have a very limited and very westernized idea and experience of Paris. I stay in central Paris and I “ooh” and “ah” at the stupidly beautiful architecture and the gorgeous scenery. I visit the extraordinary art galleries, I try and order coffee in French, and I visit cafes and do the tourist thing. But I know very well that on the outskirts of the city and beyond is a very different story and a very different experience. Paris is home to a vast array of cultures, predominantly north and western African communities. Something that I find interesting is that Therese is usually portrayed as a Caucasian French girl. But it is clear in Zola’s novel that her mother is Algerian. France has a long history with Northern Africa and there is plenty of evidence of this in Paris, but I think the North African and Arab communities are growing very fast. Paris, like the rest of Europe, is changing rapidly and the culture is shifting. However, the sense of history is so strong that I think it will always maintain a certain identity.
I do think it really helped me to have some sense of Paris while writing this play. I knew exactly what the arcade looks like that the Raquin’s shop and apartment is in. I knew exactly where on the river the murder takes place. I had a good sense of the light, and smell and feel of the place, of the streets and the pathways the characters would journey to get to the apartment each Thursday. I could have imagined all these things to an extent, but having some personal knowledge of Paris definitely helped.
You moved here from South Africa to study at VCA, is there anything you miss about your hometown?
I was 19 years old when I moved here, in 1998. I have only been back twice since then. I absolutely have a sense of missing something, but it’s not really anything tangible, like some park or some road or tree or anything like that. I mean, of course I miss the house I grew up in, and the pets we had and family and friends. But rather what I miss feels larger and more abstract. Like my past and my childhood and the culture I was born into. Australia is similar in many ways, but also very, very different culturally. But it’s different in very subtle and hard to explain ways. I miss not having a definite familial or territorial connection to my past anymore. My family moved to Oz a couple of years after I did and sold our family home and most of everything, really. I miss not being able to visit my old house, or my old suburb. I miss not being able to dip back into that part of my life anymore. All that remains of that life are some very unreliable memories and photographs. I have friends from that time in my life who live all around the world now. But their families still live back in SA and so they get to go back once a year, or more. Our experiences of immigrating are quite different because of that.
I guess in a more concrete way I miss the light. The sky in Australia feels much wider and further away. The light is sharper, more piercing. The sun stings on really hot days in a way that will never feel familiar. The air smells different. In South Africa in the “veld” or country surrounding the city are these bushes called potato bushes. They don’t actually grow potatoes but at dusk they smell like baking potatoes and at certain times of the year that smell hangs in the air all around you. I miss that smell. And the sounds of birds I grew up with.
But in a way, you know, I don’t know if what I really miss is my hometown or just childhood itself.
You’re based in Melbourne where this year’s Festival is being held, what attractions would you recommend to someone on their first visit here?
It will be towards the end of summer, which I think is the best time to be here. The weather is steadier and less severe and there are dozens of little mini-festivals that happen around the city. I’d recommend a stroll through and picnic in the botanical gardens. We’ve had a lot of rain and the gardens are looking really luscious and alive.
I’d definitely check out ACME (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). It’s a really unique gallery and centre devoted to video art. They have a cool little viewing room with loads of TV’s and booths where you can just wander in and watch a whole variety of art videos and movies. And it’s free! The Galleries are good (both the National Gallery at Federation Square and The International one on St Kilda Road).
If you have a chance, visit these streets:
- Lygon Street ,Carlton
- Brunswick Road, Brunswick
- High Street, Northcote
- Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
- Smith Street and Gertrude Street, Collingwood
- Chapel Street, Windsor ( not the South Yarra End…that’s horrible)
- Balaclava St, East St Kilda
These streets are what Melbourne is about. Each area has a very different and distinct flavour and style. It’s fun to check out the people and try and figure out exactly how many varieties of “Hipster” populate Melbourne. I’d also recommend strolling along the esplanade that runs all the way from Port Melbourne to Brighton, taking you past Albert Park, South Melbourne and St Kilda. But not if you’re from Sydney and are simply going to harp on about how ugly Melbourne’s beaches are!
For drinking and fun there are so many great bars and cafes and nightspots. Curtain house on Swanston street is always a safe bet as it houses a variety of different establishments in the one building, including the great rooftop bar and cinema. Other places I like are Madame Brusells, 1000 pound bend, Ponyfish Island, Sister Bella’s….oh, look, just hang on to one of the Melbourne-based actors and they’ll show you a good time!
And finally, what three things would you never travel without?
I’m really literal with these things. My passport, my wallet and my iPhone. Oh, but if there is flying involved than also Xanax. I’d swap my iPhone for a fist full of Xanax.