The National Play Festival, hosted at the Malthouse Theatre, opened with Artistic Director of Playwriting Australia Tim Roseman reminding the gathered crowd of industry faces one of the fundamental tenets of responsibility the theatre has for its audience: to be reflective of what Australia looks like today.
Roseman rightly celebrated the festival achieving its goals of reaching gender parity, and of there not being a single all-white cast. The necessity of noting this as an achievement is remarkably telling, but it does signify and mark a perceptible shift across all areas of theatre-production; as they say, from script to stage.
Appropriate to the times, too, is Roseman’s note that the plays are diverse—in form, content, and authorship—and about survival and coping in the unknowable times we live in.
Following this, acclaimed playwright Michael Gow’s keynote address, ‘The Agony and the Agony’, spoke back to this in a meditation on the art of playwriting. Gow, drawing on Robert McKee’s retranslation of Aristotle, pronounces that what lies at the heart of drama is struggle.
Later in his speech, Gow addresses funding cuts and brings them in conversation with the bigness of writing struggle, of writing the art of arguing. The provocation—made to an audience of notable directors, playwrights, dramaturges, producers, and theatre-addicts—is one of elevating playwriting as a craft and method of producing well-made arguments about the world.
“My sense is things are going to get slowly, quietly worse. By things I mean politics, the economy, the way we’re persuaded to deal with each other. As well as entertaining I think our job will be to argue, and argue well in this our public forum.”
Gow, tracking his own canonical inspirations, reminds us to think about those traditions. His call for playwrights to expand the Australian canon is a call to nurture future writing, but also follows Roseman’s announcement about AustralianPlays’ launch of the Playbox Collection, which recognises a rich and diverse archive of ‘All-Australian’ texts.
The demand to look at who has come before is to think about indigeneity, about the roots of literature, about who has been sidelined and made invisible, about those who have been lost.
Amidst Gow’s exhortation for drama as a literary practice is included a call to celebrate craft that carries within it, longevity, intellect, and truth about the world we live in. A craft that sits in conversation with existing, past, and future work. It is an argument for dramatists to dramatise, for play-wrighting – to make and craft plays with integrity and skill.
The Zen of Table Tennis by Melissa Reeves, following the keynote, is a remarkable example of crafting a world rich with arguments that are so funny and clever you don’t realise you have rallied to its side until you are in its camp.
The Zen of Table Tennis offers a timely close-up of the aftereffects of war on not just PTSD-afflicted veterans, but also how the war games played on battlefields we mostly don’t see come back to haunt us in our future generations. The characters include Arki, a young teenager who loves playing war games online and who has also just beat up his English teacher; Aaron, a disturbed returned soldier; and Sayf, who runs the best Afghan restaurant in Dandenong.
They are finely wrought characters deep in quip-happy humanity, their deflections familiar, brief waterfalls of complex ideas and conversations gripping. Reeves brings a myriad of characters into each others’ lives, trips them up, and leaves them sprawled in a heap of personality that leaves you wanting more.
Roseman’s and Gow’s addresses coalesce nicely in Reeves’ The Zen of Table Tennis, with an ending that is paradoxically neat and messy all at once: a beginning that sees the possibility of different lives coming together in beautiful ways.