BATS Theatre Company is set to open its doors to Ray Lawler’s Carlton in his iconic Australian play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. ‘The Doll’, which opened in 1955, is considered to be the most historically significant in Australian theatre by literary scholars. A large proportion of Australian school children have studied the play for their VCE and director Sharon Maine is no different.
“Like most school students I studied ‘The Doll’ during my teenage years,” says Maine. “At that point I didn’t take away a favourable impression. I wasn’t lucky enough to see the play onstage until much later in life. Even though there were many elements of the play that didn’t thrill me, I was impressed by Lawler’s superb gearing.”
The play has been heralded as portraying authentic Australian life in a realistic manner and is, of course, the fist in the three part instalment known as The Doll Trilogy. Giving contemporary audiences a glimpse into the life of the early 50’s, the play also sits amongst the greats of literature. Lawler does well to surmount time and place with universal themes of loss, love and valour amongst them.
“The play is funny, heartbreaking and progressive. It sits proudly alongside the work of the great American dramatists of the mid-20th century, every bit as humorously skillful as Tennessee Williams and as deeply connected to Greek tragedy as Arthur Miller,” says Maine. “I believe that the idea that it represents an Australia that has ceased to exist is nonsense. The depth with which Lawler examines human nature is close to timeless.”
To help students and audiences in general, connect to a time and place, Maine and her creatives have kept true to the period. “We have also focused heavily on the depth and damage involved in the human relationships that the play presents,” she says. “The power in this play is the people that Lawler has created and the words he has put in their mouths that are thrilling.”
Maine feels strongly that after all these years, the play stands the test of time. There are jokes and lines that still take the audience by surprise, and the unique circumstances of the central characters create powerful theatre. Ray Lawler’s ending still packs a punch.
“It’s a brilliant story that forces painful change as each character faces the chasm between what they want to be seen as and who they are, and it’s a masterclass in the power of a three-act structure,” says Maine. “It is one of my favourite plays. Lawler ensures that we understand why every choice is made, but we long for every one to choose differently and find a way back to happiness and love. Its honesty is as true now as ever and its world is still so close to ours.”
“Lawler gives audiences rich insights into the societal structure and code of conduct that was typical of Australian life set in that period of time. The play talks about a group of ordinary people who are struggling to stay young and do not acknowledge the reality that they are aging. In their desperate bid to escape the inevitability of the consequences of change, the characters inflict hurt upon themselves. Through the characters Lawler explores issues about Australian masculinity, mateship and the so called social “norms”. Lawler challenges readers to examine and question the ideals, values and attitudes, which form their own “world” by exposing the limitations of lives based on the pursuit of unrealistic aspirations.”
“There is a great deal of depth and many layers in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll: it is essentially about masculinity and alpha males coming to terms with being replaced by younger, fitter, stronger men, but it is also about life choices and how to make the most of life. The summer party lifestyle that has been convenient and worked effectively for everyone for so many years is abruptly interrupted and none of the characters adapt or understand their predicament – they are in a childlike state of denial that they will ever age and have responsibilities.”
There is much to embrace within Lawler’s potent work but, for Maine, her favourite parts are the wonderful naturalistic set and the compelling characters as well as rediscovering the emotional and lasting power of The Doll.
It is also always heartening to see local theatres put on an Australian play because, as Maine says, it is vitally important to show Australian stories so if you love Australian theatre, if you love theatre, you have no excuse to miss this version of The Doll.
July 15 – July 24
Cranbourne Community Theatre, Brunt St, Cranbourne.