According to the quotable G.K. Chesterton, all slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. By this memorable formula, along with sailors and Cockneys, few subcultures can claim to be as poetically fecund as prison culture. Both The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice, one-act plays currently being presented as a double bill at fortyfivedownstairs, are fine examples of this.
Written in the early 1970s by Jim McNeil – Australian playwright, ex-con and all-round human tragedy – the plays are two of the most celebrated works of Australian theatre. They have outlasted the naive political radicalism of the 1970s that first brought them into prominence, and have outlasted, too, the unfortunate infamy of their author, although the latter will no doubt linger ghost-like for many years to come.
The greatness of the writing now stands on its busy lyricism and energetic rhythms. It is poetry, albeit a poetry at the service of a frustrated moralist. Listening to them today, one hears first the enthusiasm of an author flush with the heady joy of discovering his own unexpected music, a fluent outlet for self expression.
The Chocolate Frog is a deft little scenario that pits two long-term prisoners against a green young newcomer, a "square head", ignorant of the unwritten moral code by which prisoners live and die. Luke McKenzie plays the sager of the two hard-nuts, with Cain Thompson as his cellmate. The two arrange a kangaroo court to put the young Kevin (Will Ewing) on trial as a "dog" – prison slang for anyone who "cops" or "rats" or "dobs" on another.
In The Old Familiar Juice, McNeil describes the efforts of a hulking long-term prisoner called Bulla (McKenzie) to seduce, or more roughly "possess", a young cell-mate (Thompson), under the disapproving by impotent eye of Dad (Richard Bligh), a decrepit old-timer. McKenzie does not always convince as a dangerous and sly criminal, but he does convey the powerful persistence of loneliness, the weight that drags constantly on Bulla as he stalks around the crowded little cell, like the aching muscle it almost is. "You don't hand your penis in at the gate," said McNeil about the writing of this play, "you've got to carry it with you."
Wattle We Do Next Productions is a self-described "fledgling" company based in Sydney, though this production at fortyfivedownstairs is their first professional showing. Luke McKenzie, the driving force behind company, is a strong presence in both plays, while Cain Thompson, the other founding Wattle We Do Next member, shows impressive range as he flips between aggressive hard-man in Frog and indecisive prey in Juice.
This is a great opportunity to see two important and very fine works of Australian literature given a thoughtful if somewhat understated showing. It is a little subdued, but director Malcolm Robertson, who was very much involved in championing McNeil in the seventies, clearly understands this work better than most. The lack of aggressive physicality, which must be a great temptation with these scripts, is a blessing here, as it puts the focus on the plays' real strength, which is in the text itself.