THE NATIONAL TREASURE: HANNIE RAYSON
“There is nothing more exciting and dynamic than the theatre”
Guest writer Elissa Blake from Audrey Journal met three women playwrights at different points in their careers who will have their plays presented at Riverside during winter. This is Part 3: The National Treasure: Hannie Rayson
At 61, Hannie Rayson is one of Australia’s best-known and most successful playwrights. Her Falling From Grace, Scenes from a Separation (written with Andrew Bovell), Life After George and Inheritance have all graced the country’s major stages.
Ask anyone to name a Hannie Rayson play, however, and odds on, it will be her first hit that springs to mind: Hotel Sorrento.
“It’s been an amazing play for me,” Rayson says. “People have wanted to perform it all my working life. It’s like having a very successful child. Every time I feel like I may need to earn some money, there would be another production somewhere and I think, thank you Hotel Sorrento, you little ripper!”
Hotel Sorrento is a family drama, the story of Meg, a writer who returns to the sleepy town of Sorrento with her best-selling novel under her arm, one based on her own life. For her sisters, who stayed in Sorrento, the attention the book is attracting has become onerous. Meg’s story is theirs, too.
But before those scores can be settled, the situation changes radically. Wal, the family patriarch drowns while swimming with his grandson.
The play premiered in 1990 at Playbox in Melbourne, arguably the country’s hub of new Australian writing at the time, and was a box office hit. It was quickly adapted into a successful film directed by Richard Franklin starring Caroline Goodall, Caroline Gillmer and Tara Morice.
“It was a big deal, that play,” Rayson says. “And absolutely a journey of the soul for me as a writer.”
Rayson came to playwriting after studying acting at the Victorian College of the Arts in the late 1970s. “I completely loved acting but I had a moment halfway through my training when I realised I didn’t want to be a performer. Instead, I started writing for actors.”
“Luckily, it was a very fecund time where people were talking a lot about Australian culture and what it means to be Australian. Before that, a lot of what was in the theatres had been British Repertoire or American imports. But suddenly there was a burgeoning Australian theatre culture and we all wanted to be a part of it. It was exciting to be a generator of theatre rather than an interpreter of other people’s works,” she adds. “You had a responsibility to capture an Australian voice and to write about the dreams and aspirations of ordinary people.”
Writing her own plays was also an opportunity to put women’s voices on to the stage, Rayson says. “At the VCA, the women couldn’t find parts for women that didn’t involve serving tea or being someone’s girlfriend. They wanted meaty parts that had a big palette of emotions, so I said to my friends, ‘I’ll write one for you’. That was a great training ground for me, writing two-handers, three-handers, then four-handers. If I was running a drama school now, I’d make sure everyone did that. You learn so much from it.”
Her fifth play, Hotel Sorrento put the female experience front and centre of the drama. We forget, says Rayson, how relatively rare that was in Bicentennial-era Australia.
“It was a new experience for some of the male actors in the production to find they were not the driver of the story,” she says. “But essentially, the play is an examination of what it means to be Australian, which is something everyone in that period was wrangling over. It was an intellectually fertile time, and Sorrento keyed right into it.”
As a playwright, Rayson is drawn to family stories. “I love family stories – but other people’s families, not my own! I don’t normally write because I need to plumb some murky psychological stuff in my own life.”
Inevitably though, the personal creeps in. Rayson’s husband, the ABC arts and culture broadcaster Michael Cathcart once pointed it out. “I said to Michael I’ve got this great idea for a new play, and I told him the story
and that the father dies. He looked at me with his mouth open and he said, ‘you do realise that every single play you write, you kill the man before interval?’
I LOVE FAMILY STORIES – BUT OTHER PEOPLE’S FAMILIES, NOT MY OWN! I DON’T NORMALLY WRITE BECAUSE I NEED TO PLUMB SOME MURKY PSYCHOLOGICAL STUFF IN MY OWN LIFE.
“I said, ‘oh, bullshit, I do not, how ridiculous!’ Then when I thought about it and my god, it’s actually true. My own father died in the interval of my life, when I was in my early 20s. I think it shaped my life and my writing without
realising it. You are writing autobiographically sometimes, even when you don’t mean to.”
Like David Williamson, Rayson’s work has been targeted by some critics for being issues-based.
“I am wary of that,” she says. “But I think theatre should be a place where the issues of the day are hashed out. I want the theatre to be a player in that. There is nothing more exciting and dynamic than the theatre. I love it the next morning after seeing a show, when you’re washing the dishes and your head is teeming with things that you really want to think through.”
Rayson is hitting the road this year touring her one-woman show Hello, Beautiful, a love letter in 43 scenes to her hometown, Melbourne. The show plays at Griffin Theatre in Kings Cross in July.
“There is a part of me that thinks, oh my god, what are you doing? You’re acting again,” she laughs.
“But I’ve got to a point in my career now where I want to be a maker. As a writer you are always at the mercy of the gatekeepers – the artistic directors and the literary departments, the people who decide what gets on and what will not.
“The really fantastic thing about doing Hello, Beautiful for me is that I am theatre making, with me really thinking about things like how my show should be lit and how I can make the transitions work better, all that stuff.”
Rayson also loves being out from under the writers’ desk. “When you play the country towns, everyone brings cream buns, sausage rolls and sandwiches after the show and you get to meet people face-to-face. It’s so affirming, just lovely, absolutely lovely.”
Hotel Sorrento plays at Riverside Theatres, July 31 – August 4. Originally published on Audrey Journal