Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Nick Enright's Blackrock: when the good do nothing

It's probably true that one's early endeavours are more fondly remembered. Memory smoothes the edges of rough biography.

One of my very first major productions was the first production of Nick Enright's Blackrock. Nick and I were friends - both born in Maitland (along with John Bell and Ruth Cracknell, weirdly) - and we spent some time developing this play at Sydney Theatre Company. Cate Blanchett acted Rachel in the early workshops, and the first cast included a fresh Joel Edgerton, Angela Punch McGregor, Simon Lyndon, Kym Wilson, Rebecca Smart, Paul Bishop, Dan Wyllie, Teo Gebert, Kristina Bidenko, John Walton and Julie Godfrey. It's a piece of which we were all very proud.

Yesterday, a new project was launched called Reading Australia, initiated by the Copyright Agency. It aims to promote and expand knowledge of essential pieces of Australian writing. In July, the Australian Society of Authors’ (ASA) Council selected an initial 200 Australian books, both fiction and non-fiction. The list will grow. The idea is that writers, academics, teachers and libraries collaborate to provide material around these works - essays, readings, visual and audio material, teaching resources - allowing users of the list (mostly teachers and students, I guess) to read, interpret, historicise and connect more deeply with this interesting collection of Australian literature. Click here to hear a podcast of an ABC interview with Angelo Loukakis (ASA Executive Director) and Zoe Rodriguez (CA Cultural Fund Manager) discussing the project. 

Yesterday, material on 20 titles was released. The only play so far is Blackrock, and I was honoured to contribute an essay on my experience of the work. It's geared towards an education audience, but I hope has appeal beyond.

Here are my thoughts:

 

Blackrock: when the good do nothing

 The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing 

 (attributed to Edmund Burke).

Blackrock has a special place in my memory. I directed the first production for Sydney Theatre Company in August 1995, and for almost eighteen months before that led a development process at the company involving four separate workshops and many drafts during which the story shifted its shape considerably.

Perhaps more than that, the real events that inspired the play hold a particular meaning for me. Like Nick Enright, I was born in Maitland, maybe a 25-minute drive from Newcastle and Stockton. I attended the University of Newcastle. When 14-year-old Leigh Leigh was raped by a group of boys and murdered at a 16th birthday party on Stockton Beach on 3 November 1989, I was at the university just across the harbour.

Many in the community knew of the impact of these events. In July 1991, Brian Joyce, the Artistic Director of Freewheels (Newcastle's professional theatre-in-education company), approached Nick to write a play for young audiences. He suggested dealing with this tragedy. Nick rejected the idea, perhaps sensing something too private, raw and 'sensational' in the worst sense, but Brian's focus on the idea of the girl's peer group caught Nick's attention. Brian argued that there were many young people in the community whose grief, anger and shame had still not been adequately vented. After much research, a play for four actors was written and performed.  

I'm not concerned here with the differences between these two plays. They were written for very different audiences and purposes. But it is important to note that it's central to the conception of both that the murdered girl and criminal acts be kept off stage.

This choice was made for ethical as much as for dramatic purposes. The circumstances of Leigh Leigh's death continue to cause much anguish. Even now, 25 years after the events, there is speculation about what really happened that night. It did not seem right to Brian, Nick or (later) me to represent the young girl and her family onstage, even in this fictional form.

The exclusion provides unusual dramatic opportunities. While Blackrock is not centrally interested in what really happened, the audience still experiences emblematic versions of the rape and murder, and these provide key moments in the drama. There are a few moments worth mentioning.

In the scene in which Ricko confesses to Jared that he killed Tracy, Tiffany approaches and Ricko hurls doughnuts at her. She is covered in jam. The action is telling enough, but Tiffany leaves the scene looking almost as if she is bloodied, an emblem of the violated Tracy.

Then, in the climactic scene between Jared and Ricko, Tiffany is again the subject of an attack by Ricko. He demands that she have sex with both he and Jared, almost as a way to bond the two males. It heads towards rape. When Tiffany escapes thanks to Jared's intervention, a prized surfing trophy is used by Ricko to (almost) smash Jared's head. In this moment, we see the moment when Ricko smashed Tracy's head with a rock. In this scene we have seen images of rape and murder, giving us a glimpse of what happened. They also give Jared that glimpse, fortifying him towards a resolution of his dilemma. He realises that what happened to Tracy didn't 'just happen' but was part of Ricko's pathology.

A little later, Rachel offers Jared a coffee mug as a gift to match the saucer she gave him in one of their early meetings. As they argue the circumstance of Tracy's (and Ricko's) death, Jared smashes the mug in an uncontrolled rage. We know that it is possible that Jared will harm Rachel, perhaps sexually. This, too, is a version of the circumstances of Tracy's death. 'It was like it just happened', was Ricko's earlier justification to Jared. We see that it might 'just happen' here. 

Another evocation of Tracy's rape and murder is contained within Diane's breast cancer. In story terms, her cancer and mastectomy serve to highlight the mutilation of a woman's body. When mother and son are in some way reconciled at the very end of the play – a crucial moment I'll return to – it is partly through Jared's acknowledgment of his mother's condition. She carefully guides his hand to both sides of her chest in an attempt to express and share a sense of loss – loss of a breast, loss of a son, loss of a young girl's life.

It can be a highly affecting moment. I remember audiences at that first production witnessing Angela Punch McGregor as Diane take the hand of Simon Lyndon's Jared with a clarity and empathy that made many weep. For many, and not just mothers, to witness such an intimate form of reconciliation between mother and son is to witness something deep and ineffable, something that, in an individual way, works to heal the complex gulf between men and women.

While the play is not interested in the murder itself, it is very interested in the underlying causes of the murder. It hones in on the social and cultural forces that can lead a group of boys to do such a horrific thing and in how the rape/murder affects those left behind. When Blackrock was in development, there was a great deal of interest in the media and academia about how boys were being left behind in the education system and how this was leading to a propensity towards violence and suicide. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald spoke to this problem just two weeks before Blackrock opened. This focus on the boys, and on Jared in particular, seemed a potent position to take.

One of the forces the play highlights is that of gender division. Most of the males in the play have a barely concealed contempt for anything that smacks of the feminine. Clearly, Jared and his mates objectify the girls. Their language throughout is harsh and demeaning. Tiffany has a use-by date. To them, it is reasonable for a girl to become, as a psychiatrist described it in court testimony at the Leigh Leigh case, 'a property of the clan'. But for these boys and men, even expressing genuine feeling can be seen as corrupting the 'authentic' male. Ricko considers Jared a 'queer dog' for expressing that he missed Ricko. Ironically, gang rape can often be an expression of homosocial, or even homoerotic, bonding.

This contempt, or at the very least disregard, for women is not confined to the young men or boys, or to the 'working class' environment of the play. The narrative strand that exposes Stewart's work in advertising widens the frame. His wife and daughter dislike his latest ad campaign, 'Body Count – what counts most for a woman', which has been 'plastered over every bus shelter'. We are reminded that images of women are consistently used in advertising and the media in ways that demean women.

Tellingly, the big scene in Blackrock that gives us glimpses of the beach party entwines a scene from Stewart's award night. His winning Body Count ad is about to play when the scene shifts to Shana at the beach running on in bra and bikini briefs. For a moment, an audience might think that we are watching a stage representation of the ad – Stewart, after all, says 'Christ, they're going to screen it. Here it is. Enjoy... ' just before Shana's entrance. An audience might think that the girl running on is the girl in the ad. Many watching the first production did. In this way, the play asks how media representations of women might impact on how men treat women in the wider world.

This big scene also takes us to another birthday event of that same night: Diane and Glenys cheering on a male stripper. In one moment, Glenys slips money into the stripper's g-string. When he approaches Diane, she runs out, feeling an instinctive reaction to her breast cancer. It's a phantom version of Tracy's fate: both women in distress at about the same time. If this complex scene is staged well, in a way that allows an uninterrupted flow of events much like in an Elizabethan play, then the three celebrations of that one night find a unity which serves to blur gender and class and so reveal a more universal inclination towards the objectification of the body. 

The broad social context of the play is undoubtedly a rich one. But the play's primary dramatic interest sits somewhere else. The play is built on Jared's individual journey, on how this young man deals with the challenges before him.

When we meet Jared, he appears to be in a good place. He's doing well at school, is in the first phase of a relationship with Rachel, and even impresses his mother with a thoughtful birthday gift. When the play opens, he is even ready to break the gender divide and give Cherie a surfing lesson.

Ricko's return shifts this trajectory.

Ricko is more than Jared's best mate. He is a father substitute. Nick's plays are full of absent fathers, and Blackrock is no exception. Here, we learn that Ricko has been Jared's mate since the very week that Jared's father walked out of the family. On that day, Ricko heroically saved Jared and invited him into the clan. Ricko has been unable to find a satisfying life away from his devotees, and his homecoming will impact on Jared's maturation in mostly adverse ways.  

Jared, beginning to change and develop as a young man, is caught in a world that doesn't want change. Ricko wants things to be as they were. 'Blackrock for the Blackos', he proclaims when confronted with Toby from across the river. When Ricko demands that Tiffany 'do' both he and Jared, he tells her that 'you'll do what you always do, bitch. Cause that's what you are. What you'll always be'. In his final plea to Jared to lie to the police, he invokes the unswerving bonds of mateship: 'Your turn to look after me'. Jared refuses: 'That'd make me the same as you'. Ricko insists: 'You are, man, you fucken are!'. When Jared learns of Ricko's fate and attempts in a haze to partly blame Tracy for the rape, on hearing that Tracy was a virgin he asserts that in that case she should have acted like one, as if her apparent refusal to do so is the cause of her complicity. He demands that 'people should act the way they are'. Jared, along with others less equipped for the fight, battles with a world that refuses to remain fixed, that increasingly rejects the assigned gender roles.

The play follows Jared's moral dilemma through three key relationships: with his best mate, his girlfriend, and his mother. We see, finally, that Jared's sense of right defeats his sense of mateship: he will not lie to the police to provide an alibi for Ricko, despite the powerful friendship. Ricko, ill-equipped to cope, suicides in his cell. Just as it was for their mate Jason, another member of the clan, death is easier than living.  

But what of Jared's relationship with his girlfriend? Rachel carries much of the play's moral weight, and we see this play out in many ways. She rejects her father's attitude to the demeaning use of women's bodies in advertising. As the person who discovered Tracy's mutilated body, she speaks at a school assembly, attempting to open up discussion and offering a suggestion to plant a tree. She encourages Jared, and his mates, to talk about what happened, and why, and to perhaps seek professional counselling in order to help them do so. She makes a courageous stand in her family when her brother is threatened with jail. She is one of several people Jared goes to in search of comfort and counsel.

I'm sure Rachel influences Jared deeply, but finally the weight of their situation becomes too heavy for the relationship to bear. 

And his mother? Blackrock gives powerful focus to Jared's relationship with Diane. At the beginning of the play, they live alone together and appear to be getting along well. But soon they are estranged. He cannot tell her anything of his dilemma, and she cannot tell him of her cancer. She worries what will happen to him should she not survive. Glenys comforts her: 'You've done a good job so far. The boy's nearly there.' Diane queries: 'Where?'. Then Glenys opens up the mystery of how boys turn into men: 'Wherever it is they go'. For me, it's one of the most telling moments of the play.    

The final scene of the play centres on the mother-son relationship and finds a way to give the story back to the murdered girl. The scene begins with Jared alone on the rock, just as he was in the opening moments of the play. He is living in Ricko's van. His mother approaches on her way to clean Tracy's grave of what is probably the word 'slut' painted across the headstone. They stumble towards reconciliation.

Finally, after that remarkable moment in which she shares the physical reality of her loss, Jared shares what he knows. It's a brilliant speech, which Simon Lyndon in the first production delivered with a rawness and honesty that held the audience utterly spellbound. We were watching a young man trying heroically to breach the chasm that separated him from his greater and better self. Eventually, Jared lands on his essential problem: he did nothing. He says,

I let it all happen. [Silence.] They headed back to the party. She went stumbling off down that way, towards the rock. And I turned and ran the other way. I could have gone down there. Any time. I could have taken her home. Only I wouldn't. I didn't. (p. 68)  

His mother interrogates him, asking why he did nothing, and makes a revealing comparison between Ricko's death and Tracy's. He had a choice; she did not.

As Diane goes off to the grave, inviting Jared to join her, Cherie enters, just as she did in the first scene, and cheekily asks for the surfing lesson she almost got just before Ricko's return. Jared makes a deal: he will do so if she dumps Ricko's van keys into the ocean. Jared sheds the protective armour of his wet suit, tosses the keys to his young cousin, and goes off to be with his mother and to make some peace with Tracy.

He did nothing then, but will do what he can now.

The play could end there, but it does not. We are left with Cherie, alone on stage. Throughout, this young girl has been Tracy's representative on stage. She is the youngest at the party, she alone visits Tracy's grave with love, and so she is fittingly given the final moment. On this New Year's Day, with whales offering good luck, she holds the last remnants of her best friend's murderer in her hand, and heads to the sea to dispose of them forever. It is an ending that offers hope, a glimpse of a world in which good boys turn into good men, and in which good people are unafraid to intervene when hatred appears.

1 comment:

  1. Blackrock will be performed at the O'Kelly Theatre, St Ignatius Riverview, as part of the Epicentre Theatre Co 2013 Season. Details at: http://www.epicentretheatre.org.au/

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