They say you should never let the facts get in the way of a good yarn
Written by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy, The Legend of King O'Malley is a classic of the Australian stage, but like so many of our classics, it is rarely performed. Why are we so shy of celebrating our past achievements? Well, director Phil Rouse has had enough. He has launched a new company – the aptly named Don't Look Away – dedicated to reviving and re-invigorating forgotten Australian gems. They even have a manifesto.
First seen in 1970, The Legend of King O'Malley, is a vaudeville musical lampooning the larrikin spirit of Australia's folk heroes: the practical, anti-authoritarian, colonial male. Its broadly comic style struck the keynote of the New Wave of Australian writing for the stage in the 1970s, and went on to influence a generation of playwrights.
Time Out spoke to Phil Rouse about his imaginative leap into the world of King O'Malley.
Who is King O'Malley, and why are his exploits legendary?
King was an American expat to Australia before federation. He was a brilliant liar, a showman, a salesman, a scrapper, a man of great rhetorical gifts, and finally a man of great moral conscious. His exploits are legendary because, like all legends, it is nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction. He built a legend around himself so he could achieve his political ends. And The Legend of King O'Malley is as eccentric as the man himself.
Tells us a little about the history of this play. Who were some of the people behind its first production?
A young cast and crew of theatre makers built the play in 1970. It was performed with then NIDA students at the old Jane Street Theatre before transferring to the then new Parade Theatre. That "young cast and crew" included such theatre royalty as John Bell, John Paramor, Rex Cramphorne, Robyn Nevin, Kate Fitzpatrick and Gillian Jones. The original production and its transfer were so formative that 25 years later critic Katherine Brisbane wrote "Contemporary Australian theatre took its direction from The Legend of King O'Malley".
At the time, critics, like Brisbane, were comparing The Legend of King O'Malley to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, a play which has a much more visible place in the Australian imagination. What happened?
I think it is a purely practical reason why The Doll is more secure in the imagination, and that is it's more like other plays. One can read The Doll, or study it in school, as one would another piece of theatrical literature. King O'Malley only lives on the stage. The imaginative leaps it takes to read the words on the page and understand the theatrics is a tricky one.
Though most people in the theatre world know the name, since the seventies King O'Malley has hardly been seen. Are we now embarrassed by its Australianness?
The Australianness of it is not something contemporary audiences associate with, and if not dealt with carefully, it could be cringe worthy. King O'Malley was part of the unashamedly populist side of the New Wave. Characterising a way of looking at our history that attacked pomposity, which needs to be translated for a contemporary audience into a sense of ridiculous, eccentric theatricality, rather than a reductive reproduction of Australiana iconography. Michael Boddy says in the play's introduction that it is a play about politics. Therefore a ridiculous, eccentric play about politics – rather than a play about drop bears and shrimp on the barbie.
Michael Boddy also said that the burlesque style he exploited in O'Malley was something which came natural to Australians, and that it was the best way of expressing things in Australia. Do you think this is still true?
I think what he means by this is an aversion and mistrust of seriousness. And in the context of the 70's this was absolutely true, something I learnt while directing Rooted. I would agree this is still one of the best ways to communicate important ideas. Maybe ideas reach deeper, strike harder, when wrapped up in show-biz and burlesquing. Maybe we should make them laugh and remember rather than choke and forget. Does burlesquing come natural to Australians? No idea. It does seem to come naturally to my cast though.
What was the inspiration for Don't Look Away? When did it occur to you that this was an idea that was necessary?
The personnel and idea for Don't Look Away developed in my first few months post NIDA (The company was officially launched in August 2013). My first gig out of NIDA was a production of The Ham Funeral by Patrick White for The New Theatre where I brought together the collaborators that would become Don't Look Away. My second gig saw me travel to Far North Queensland for five weeks to Cooktown to work with the local community on a show about the landing of Captain Cook and his meeting with the Guugu Yimithirr nation. These two experiences opened my eyes to the kinds of untold stories, forgotten storytellers, and brilliant but lost theatremakers of this country. I felt in a world of adaptations, devised theatre, and new writing, I could make the most useful contribution to the cultural landscape by celebrating and reviving these great un-sung Australian works.
This is your second production for Don't Look Away after reviving Alex Buzo's Rooted in 2013. Any plans for a third?
Yes! We are running a mini-reading festival in June with ATYP in Sydney celebrating conversation between young and senior Australian playwrights. We are also in the process of planning a production of The Great God Mogadon by Barry Oakley for Melbourne Fringe, as well as taking this production of King O'Malley to Sydney at the end of the year.
The Legend of King O'Malley opens at the La Mama Courthouse on 9 April as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.