- Published: 4 August 2020
- ISBN: 9780143794974
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $34.99
How I Clawed My Way to the Middle
It is strange to me that so many people like to listen to so many other people talk about the theatre. There are those who talk for large fees or give it away at small dinner parties . . . You are there, you are good in the theatre, you have written or directed or acted or designed just because you have and there is little that you can or should be certain about because almost everything in the theatre contradicts something else.
That was written by the playwright Lillian Hellman in her wonderful book I in 1973. It’s a book I commend to anyone with an interest in the arts or things theatrical. Hellman wrote several Broadway theatre hits, and she’s a far better writer than me.
According to the inscription in my copy of Pentimento, I must have first read this in 1977, not so long after it was written. I was turning thirty-one, married with two children, and had been a jobbing professional actor for six years or so. I’ve now been a jobbing professional actor for half a century, and in recent years have frequently returned to this wisdom from Hellman for perspective – particularly since I’ve been tasked with writing a memoir.
I have been asked to write a memoir before, but every time I start to do anything about it I very quickly lose interest – in the subject of myself, more than the subject of theatre. As Hellman has noted, theatre and theatricals seem to be infinitely interesting. I, on the other hand, am not.
How I Clawed My Way to the Middle may sound ironic, given the national success I seem to have had as an actor, but I think the middle really is as far as I got, and where I’ve stayed. I guess the upper rungs, which I never scaled, might be the West End, Broadway or Hollywood. Or even a decent Australian movie. But would success in any of those places have been a leg up? And if so, to where?
In the end I chose it as a title because it’s very bloody funny. I had contemplated the equally apt Moth Holes in My History. The line I went with I owe to Ron Challinor, one of the funniest men I’ve known throughout my rather bizarre career.
Bizarre because it’s been rather unexpected, and totally accidental. I have always understood theatre to be ephemeral; here today, gone tomorrow. And I really mean gone. Except for the bad reviews – they remain like the smell of decomposing . . . But the shows themselves? Vanished. Completely gone.
Australian theatre has always been a very different beast to that of Broadway or the West End. A somewhat runny-nosed poor cousin that feels it ought to be hidden away from its relatives; the great Australian inferiority complex. But even the most famous stage actors from the golden eras of Broadway and the West End live on only in the memory of the last still-living person who saw them perform. Given the vagaries of ancient memories, those people may not even remember that they remember. And after all, it was only a play. Maybe not even a good one.
A performance on film by a great actor may flicker briefly before fading. Often they’re brought back into existence today on television, but that only renders them even more insubstantial, grainy and unwatchable than they ever were.
I am at my most comfortable performing on stage. However old and crappy I am off stage, I’m always re-energised when I walk onto the stage of a full theatre. My entire being takes on an awareness and lightness it doesn’t possess in daily life. The rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t hurt. Even though I’m partially deaf these days, in those moments I can hear every sniffle, cough, whisper or unwrapping of lollies; every softly creeping stagehand, the stage manager cueing lighting.
All right, not all the time. But on occasion it really has been like that. I love it when it happens. There is a sensation of oneness, of you and the audience taking the same breath and gently exhaling. You are mutually dependent: the same communal, communicating, communing beast. Theatre, in fact. It must be what heroin is like for an addict. And you go searching for the next hit.
Reading Hellman’s thoughts on Sir Tyrone Guthrie, a man I’d known and worked with – her descriptions of him in another place and another time, in a different hemisphere on the other side of the planet – showed me that I lived in the same dimension. I sort of shared the same air as the people they both knew; they were no longer just flickering, silvery images, but actual living, breathing people, sharing the same world as me. And the same industry.
For the most part I’ve enjoyed, even adored my life in . . . I was about to say ‘art’, but I suspect that acting is more of a craft. I doubt it can be taught like needlework, but in some cases that could only be helpful.
I apologise for being such a lovey in descriptions that follow of people I’ve known and loved, and I apologise to the many I’ve left out. Unlike Hellman, I’ve always loved being around theatre people. On stage is where I feel most alive, engaged and sure of my place in the world. Not a great CV for real life, I suspect.
Nowadays I derive most of that pleasure from being in the presence of my grandchildren; I’m of an age where I can give them what I was never able to give their parents: time and attention.
Trying to write this book has set me thinking (as you would expect it to) about my parents and their place in my life, among other things. They were hugely important – and so it must be for every child on the planet. Which makes me so little different from anybody else that it’s a mystery why I’m even attempting an autobiography. Did I say that? A brief memoir. Of sorts. Very brief.
Why bother? What have I got that nobody else has? I’m reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem about a frog ribbiting away, broadcasting its life story:
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
A question you get asked again and again as an actor is about influences. ‘Who are your influences? What has influenced you? Who’s your favourite actor?’ The subtext: how did you end up this way? ‘Do you know Geoffrey Rush? What’s it like to be a little bit famous? How would it be for me?’
The short answer is that you will still be the same person you were before, with all the same problems you already had, many of them amplified. But with the added bonus of many people wanting to ask intrusive questions. Stuff your adoring public really doesn’t need to know.
Half-awake yesterday morning, I found myself pondering ‘influences’. Not the yesterday of your reading this, but a recent yesterday of my own. Funny, as you get older, all becomes yesterday. Your todays and tomorrows begin to run away and run out. Influences. Who or what has brought me to this point, so far out in life’s depths, ever closer to God’s final shore; floundering and unable to touch bottom to turn around and go back? Pity is I’ve always been a shit swimmer. Ah well. Onwards.
Well, certainly Hitler. And Churchill too. And the catastrophe engineered by and between them that was World War Two. Within a ridiculously short time of its conclusion, I was born in Melbourne. On the birth certificate it says Windsor. I can only assume that means the Alfred Hospital; I doubt my parents could have afforded anything private. Nine a.m., Bastille Day 1946.
There! It’s said. I’m a baby boomer. And I’m mad, and I’m not gonna take it anymore. I’m sick to death of being blamed by every subsequent generation for the world’s ills. I, too, am having a lot of trouble with my mortgage. I’ve always been battling one way or another against the way the world is or has become, against the way it has been run by the people who have been running it the entire time I’ve been here.
When I was little the main person running things on my horizon was Menzies, just eclipsing the huge historic sun that was Churchill. And the mighty US Marshall of the day, Eisenhower. And the threat of atomic obliteration we all faced manfully together.
It’s the middle of the night and I’m huddled over, dragging my dilly bag, which is chock-full with all sorts of goods – jewellery, frozen food, wallets and the like.
For much of the year I had been awaiting the go-ahead on what was potentially one of the most demanding, exhausting, but exhilarating acting roles I’d ever been offered.
I am Saroo Brierley’s second mother. He came into the lives of me and my husband, John, as a six-year-old from India, making us parents for the first time.
I was born into utter poverty in Mao’s Communist China, one of seven sons of hardworking peasant parents in the north-east.
‘Here comes the princess, always dressed for a ball,’ the nurse affectionately said to my grandmother-in-law as we passed in the corridors of the Montefiore Jewish nursing home.
I am in the spare room, which doubles as my office, and I have just finished my day’s work.