(Queensland Theatre Company)


These are a pretty gritty set of plays which will not be to everyone’s taste (including mine). The quartet is well-named. Director Michael Gow tells us that Dirt is social criticism giving a “behind the gloss” view of Queensland. He also tells us this is “exciting experimental ‘pushing the envelope’ writing”.

It is a pity that young playwrights are so obsessed with the gritty and the grotty. Most of the writers seemed to delight in the type of in-your-face grossness which I would have thought rather passe in the modern theatre. Not one of the four plays lacked the “f-ing” epithet and between them they featured sex, masturbation, lavatory business, drunkenness, vomiting, urination, self-immolation, rape, bisexuality and homophobia.

Yes, sure, the parallel theatres in the QPAC complex are showing more wholesome fare Annie and Small Poppies and we need reminding of life’s underside, yet . . . There are positive stories to be told too. In real life, problems do get resolved, acts do occur of love, faith, tenderness, sacrifice. Try watching “Australian Story” on ABC-TV on a Thursday night.

That said, the plays feature some powerful and effective writing. The short play is, like the short story, a difficult form, requiring special skills to enthrall an audience and say something useful within 30 to 40 minutes. Some of these succeed.

Maryanne Lynch’s Shoe Biz starts from the interesting premise of a young woman’s dilemma in buying a pair of shoes, shifting focus to her various relationship problems. Characters in her life appear in frames above her, adding to her confusion while staying out of reach. The mini-set of her parents’ 1950s parlour is comically realised, down to the three china ducks and the bakelite wireless. But the comedy of the absurd into which the play develops is, for me, not really successful. Nor did I find Angela Betzien’s Playboy of the Working Class particularly effective, with its ambitious treatment of the myriad experiences of a compulsive gambler as his habit tears his life apart and he seeks help through Gamblers Anonymous.

Stephen Davis’s Drown is the ugliest of the four plays, as two surfies grossly humiliate a third. It features the filthiest language of the quartet (worse than anything I’ve heard since I was in the barracks). It deals with some very nasty specimens of humankind, one in particular, eventually and effectively unravelling the basis of his homophobia and hatred of his victim. The best of the quartet is Sven Swenson’s In Lieu of Flowers, depicting the closed and unhappy world of two rural teenage sisters faced with their disciplinarian father’s menace and verbal abuse. It establishes an atmosphere of threat, fear and hidden secrets reminiscent of William Faulkner. It was also the play which made cleverest use of the “wet newspaper” stimulus provided to each author.

The youngish cast are for the most part effective in diverse characterisations (as a QTC cast should be), and the directing works well. For me the pick of the cast is Melinda Butel, especially for her performance as the slightly intellectually disabled Deirdre in Swenson’s play, anxiously dependent on her more savvy 15-year-old sister while trying to anticipate their father’s commands. Paul Denny as Len in Drown captures the sheer malice of the pack leader who tortures his victim to erase the inner torture of his own demons.

We have much acting and writing talent in Queensland, as this experiment by the QTC confirms. But let’s move beyond the obsession with the underside that characterised so much of late-20th Century theatre, and face the new century with some new and more hopeful paradigms.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Wed 23rd May 2001)