Written by Ingle Knight
Directed by Chris Bendall
Designed by Fiona Bruce
Featuring Steve Turner, Geoff Kelso, Ben D’Addario, Igor Sas, Christie Sistrunk and James Hagen
Until August 5
I hope the teaching of Australian history has improved since my schooldays. Back then, after laborious lists of the early explorers and governors and hoary tales of squatters, shearers and swaggies (all the better for making sense of Waltzing Matilda, I suppose), the narrative all but collapsed.
Apart from the disgraceful marginalisation of Aboriginal history and the lives of women, perhaps the greatest tragedy was the paucity of our Twentieth Century political history. The mighty battles over free trade, the franchise and industrial relations, conscription, the banks and the communist party were a passing blur, and the great figures who fought them, Deakin, Barton, Fisher and Hughes, Theodore and Lang, Lyons, Chifley, Evatt and even the never-ending Menzies were derelict sketches without personality or insight.
With so little to spark our imagination, it’s hardly surprising that political biographies other than those of current or recent figures are so rare in print, on film or on stage. All the more reason to welcome Ingle Knight’s examination of the pivotal years in the career of perhaps our greatest, certainly our most intriguing, leader, John Curtin.
The Fremantle Candidate takes us to the darkest years in his career, from 1931, when Curtin (Steve Turner) lost the federal seat of Fremantle in the wreck of the Scullin Government, until his return to parliament in the 1934 election.
We meet other figures of the day – the great WA Labor premier Philip Collier (Igor Sas), Curtin’s mentor, the long-serving ALP parliamentarian Frank Anstey (James Hagan), as well as Curtin’s wife Elsie (Christie Sistrunk) and an invented character, the ambitious, eerily modern, state secretary Sidney Barber (Benj D’Addario).
But it’s the relationship Knight imagines between Curtin and the academic and essayist Walter Murdoch (Geoff Kelso) that is the central conceit of his play, and its driving force.
It’s an inspired vehicle for Knight’s purposes, allowing him to excavate Curtin’s personality without laboured, artificially constructed dialogue. Curtin and Murdoch talk about their hopes and fears, analyse Curtin’s alcoholism and depression, debate the issues of the day. While these conversations almost certainly never happened (there’s no record of the two men ever even meeting), it’s not implausible to believe they might have. It seems to me the rules of historical integrity are bent here for theatrically rewarding and legitimate purposes.
When Curtin and Murdoch are alone together, squabbling over a bottle of scotch or the economic philosophy of Social Credit, the play is at its best. Turner is such a fine, authentic actor, inhabiting his characters as naturally as any we have, and his Curtin is entirely believable and compelling. Kelso, likewise, is excellent as Murdoch, prickly and a little conceited, but with the virtue of knowing his faults and the great essayist’s ability to package his thoughts and opinions tightly and effectively.
Indeed, the whole cast is strong, from Hagan’s rambunctious Anstey (and cameos of a pompous ABC announcer) to Sas’s hail-fellow-well-met Collier. Sistrunk is stranded in the character of Elsie, who basically repeats the same plaint (“John is here in this house, but he’s not really with us”) throughout, but she does with it what she can.
Strangely, though, for such an experienced and skilled cast, the performance I saw seemed to be in cruise control throughout, with a subsequent lack of intensity and numerous stumbles on lines and cues, almost as if it was a little under-rehearsed. Perhaps director Chris Bendall should give his troops a little peppering – it would be much to the benefit of this very worthwhile and interesting production.