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Matthew Whittet Matthew Whittet
photo Patrick Boland

The Sydney-based actor has written five full-length plays: 12 (short-listed for the Patrick White Award in 2006 and workshopped at the Australian National Playwrights Conference), Warren, Silver (performed by Whittet as part of the 2009 B Sharp Season at Belvoir and at the National Theatre of Iceland in Reykjavik) and two commissioned works, Fugitive for Windmill Theatre and Harbinger for Brink Productions—both staged in Adelaide in 2010.

In Old Man, Daniel, a father of two young children, is subject to a profound experience of loss—his family appears to have deserted him. Or has he abandoned them? He cruelly rejects his mother’s help and, panicking, wanders the same streets as his anxious children. Underlying this deep-seated separation anxiety is his father’s desertion when he was a child. The first part of the play is addressed directly to the audience, amplifying a range of emotional crises.

I had the pleasure of reading the draft of Old Man that will go into rehearsal, where doubtless it will go through a number of changes, says Whittet, whom I met in the Belvoir offices to discuss the play.

One of the things that struck me straight off is that you’ve written a kind of dissociative play; a substantial part of it is not linear in any conventional sense. What was it that drew you to the form—the nature of the subject that you’re dealing with?

This is basically laying my cards on the table. LAUGHS. I performed in a show at Sydney Theatre Company a couple years ago, Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which I found a really fascinating form to work with... [but] the second half tended to explain and close doors on the magical first half. In the end it was a slightly reductive experience. So, although I really loved the structure, I kept thinking surely there must be a way of playing with this kind of form but finding a way where you open more doors in the second half that have been hinted at in the first but lead you on a completely different path.

So when you see the second part, you think back over the first—forced to consider what might have happened? It’s disorienting and sometimes quite spooky, even on the page.

It works on echoes and on memories but with more of a theatrical language to do with what’s happening to these bodies in space and what’s happening inside these people, less than necessarily the story of what has happened.

What drew you to write a play about a son and his missing father?

I have a five-year old and I really wanted to explore the idea of fatherhood and what it is. I was really curious to visit the experience of what it means to people I know who don’t have fathers or haven’t grown up with their fathers. How then do you learn to be a father? Where does that come from? It’s something that’s passed down, I think, the same way that motherhood is, in the same way anything is. I had big chats with a few friends when I was considering what this piece was and how I’d attack it before I’d even started writing. A friend said, you’re a father; you’ve got to put yourself on the line; you have to explore something of your own experience.

Exploring your own anxieties?

Yes. What I wanted to explore in the first half was my notion of the what-if, my notion of what would happen if I woke up one day and my family—whom I love and have no problems with; none of that anxiety exists—has gone. It’s about digging into, I guess, the possibility of loss, which always exists, that could be there at any moment. It’s quite challenging as a young father to try to imagine what it would be like to be without your family. It’s horrible. Hopefully that sort of feeling has gone into the play.

It’s a feeling scattered through a prism, isn’t it—all the characters at some point feel abandoned, to the extent that you wonder, is this one man’s nightmare or something larger?

In my heart I think it’s not as small as one person’s experience. What I want to do in the first half is to very much enter into an inner state for a whole lot of people. The audience sit with intense levels of intimacy with performers who basically speak directly to them for the first half of the production. There’s nothing new about that performance style, but when you play with its simplicity it actually does become quite confronting.

It reduces the opportunities for conventional staging.

Absolutely, and I’m really interested in how that affects their relationship to the text and to the audience. In the end the binary I was really interested in started with the closeness of the first half, that absolute access so that it is about touch and smell and it is all actually very, very concrete. There’s very little abstracted notion of anything except for the fact that these people are trying to grapple with a story they can’t quite get their hands on, that they can’t touch and they can’t understand. All they know is that things are missing.

I’m really interested in how that access, that closeness in the first half then leads to the second half in which all access is completely closed, where a fourth wall goes up. But, hopefully, you still have a connection with Daniel and what he experienced in the first half as it goes into the second. It’s kind of like putting a magnifying glass on an anxiety and burning it for a moment. You’re faced with how do you deal with day-to-day with horrors and fears—these enormous things. Without giving anything away, the play opens out into ‘the narrative’ of the piece, which I think, despite the strangeness, the hard-to-pin-downness of the first half, actually lands cleanly on something.

Though not with that terrible word ‘closure’ in mind. It still leaves you with plenty to ponder.

I hope so.

Daniel’s not necessarily a strong character. He doesn’t come across as a strong father. As you say, how do you learn to be a father if you haven’t had one. It’s like he doesn’t quite know the rules.

It feels to me like an honest response to the way a lot of people deal with being parents. My own family has structure but, being in the arts, our routines are not set in stone. Hopefully Old Man paints a picture of a simple, honest, modern response to what it is to be a parent.

These are not really complex people. The state they’re in is complex but they’re not complex people.

It’s dealing with the day-to-day and I think it’s the complexity of their thought that brings out the complexity to the piece. Outside of that, hopefully what it does is to create a lot of situations and characters that then become incredibly recognisable.

There’s a line, in a very moving scene in the second half of the play, where Daniel says, referring to and politely underplaying the impact of the absence of his father, “No blame, I just had a gap.” But it’s a very big gap, an emotional chasm in fact, and it’s hard to imagine that Daniel will fully survive it. He’s also worried that if he doesn’t become a proper father, one who will be remembered, that nothing will change generation to generation. I wondered if there is an element of fatalism in Daniel or is that something he’ll overcome?

I took a very, very long time—relative to the time it took to write the play—to find the last line of the play. I think it lands on something, which for me becomes the heart of the question of what is going on for this man.

With these characters I wanted them to explore particular moments very cleanly. In the second half of the play, what I’m trying to do, in a very delicate way, is to speak of a moment in time. It becomes not about an answer to an issue, or a way in which someone makes things right, but just to explore that simple, simple moment of someone meeting someone for the first time in their life and just how you can’t make such a moment heroic. You can barely speak. It’s a complicated and incredibly delicate meeting of people and I think that’s what I was interested in exploring; whatever these characters go on and do after the end of this play is in another world.

How long has the writing of the play taken you?

I write rather quickly. I won the Philip Parsons Award in 2010 and started writing in February last year.

Was the director Anthea Williams involved in the play’s evolution?

Anthea was involved from very early on as dramaturg and she fought to direct it, which is fabulous—to have someone who’s so committed to the play. It’s the sort of piece that will be very much about sitting with great actors—Ben Winspear, Alison Bell, Gillian Jones, Peter Carroll—a metre or so from your face. We’ve been doing auditions for the two roles for kids, which is really exciting. There are some phenomenal kids out there. It’s intimidating! You’re 12 and you can do that? I couldn’t do that at 12!

Do you feel the Downstairs Theatre will work well for the play?

I think that was one of [artistic director] Ralph Myer’s first responses when he heard it read—and Anthea and [associate director] Eamon Flack as well. The first thing they thought: this is the sort of experience that would be really special downstairs because of its intimacy.

Belvoir, Matthew Whittet, Old Man, Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, June 7-July 1

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 28

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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