Barry Crocker’s Banjo

(Twelfth Night Theatre)


For most, this one-man show on the life and work of Australian popular poet A.B. (Banjo) Paterson will be an eye-opener into the rich and varied life Paterson led as a reporter covering the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion and other conflicts, serving with the army as an officer in World War I, meeting Breaker Morant, Kipling and Churchill, and his friendship with literary figures J.F. Archibald and Henry Lawson. This on top of his early life of penury on a farm, his success as a lawyer and, most importantly, his flair for writing colourful verse at a time of Australian yearning for unification and myth-making. Plus his poor track record with women, his abiding and expensive affection for horse-flesh, and his capacity for doing all his money on a dream.

Banjo’s story includes a full treatment of the circumstances surrounding the composition of Waltzing Matilda and its subsequent evolution.

Paterson was certainly a colorful character, and Crocker does a splendid job in depicting and researching his many facets. Written as well as acted by Crocker, the play takes the form of an adddress by Paterson to boys at his old school, from which flow reminiscences, poems and songs. The presentation is enlivened with toe-tapping music by Clive Lendich as well as impressive rear slides by Ian de Gruchy of colonial and early 20th Century photos homestead interiors, shearing sheds, horse races, troops and many beautiful bush scenes. Director Katy Manning pulls it all together well.

Superb in acting Paterson, Crocker is also masterful in acting, rather than simply reciting, his verse. Most of the favourites are there A Bush Christening, Clancy of the Overflow, The Geebung Polo Club, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, plus of course The Man from Snowy River. (One to be “cut”, unfortunately, is The Man from Ironbark.) The only niggle I had over the presentation was the use of amplification.

Despite the interest and entertainment value of the show, it doesn’t quite succeed in engaging one emotionally. Perhaps this reflects the quality of Paterson’s verse, yet there is much more that could have been wrung from the human drama of Paterson’s life and the core place his words occupy in the Australian consciousness. The Paterson character tells us how he wept as he heard his Waltzing Matilda being sung by Aussie troops embarking for war, but the visceral connection isn’t quite there for the audience to share the tears. (And perhaps more could have been made of the profound ideological differences between Lawson and Paterson disguised by their contrived public feud.)

However we do come to understand Paterson as idealist and victim of his own dreams. We see too how Paterson’s craving for military glory as a result of his family’s military triumphs blinded him for too long to the catastrophic effects of war.

And the combination of fine acting, good songs, a fascinating story and Banjo’s clever verse makes it a good night out.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Mon 30th June 2003)