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Ginger Mick at Gallipoli: Interview

Australian Classical Theatre - a scene from Ginger Mick at Gallipoli

Michael Dwyer, The Age

’Is name is on the records at the Melbourne City Court,
Fer doin’ things an’ sayin’ things no reel nice feller ort;
An ’is name is on the records uv the Army, over there,
Fer doin’ things—same sort o’ things that rose the Bench’s ’air.
—C.J. Dennis, Introduction to The Moods of Ginger Mick, 1916

Stewart Morritt has always been a sucker for the classics: The Merchant of Venice, Bleak House, Lady Chatterleyv’s Lover. In that kind of company, Ginger Mick seems a slightly wretched colonial cousin. But perhaps that’s more cultural cringe than literary analysis.

‘I skirt around the phrase “The Australian Shakespeare”, but that’s the level I responded to (Dennis’) writing on,’ says the director of Melbourne’s Petty Traffikers theatre company. ‘That’s what I did in England and it’s all I ever wanted to do—join the Royal Shakespeare Company and do verse poetry.’

That was before the Yorkshire thespian moved to Melbourne 10 years ago and stumbled on a copy of The Sentimental Bloke.

‘I thought it was fantastic,’ he enthuses. ‘I felt it was like a cross between John Godber and William Shakespeare. This was verse poetry about ordinary men and, like Shakespeare, it tends to bypass the head and go straight into the heart.’

Ginger Mick is a more ordinary man than most, even in Dennis’ 90-year-old canon of slangspouting Aussie larrikins. Mick is a rough, rabbit-hawking jailbird from the back streets of Melbourne who finds his unlikely inner hero in the trenches of Gallipoli.

He was the first of many lesserknown spin-offs from The Sentimental Bloke, the South Australian poet’s best-known work. That classic yarn of 1915 was a silent film within a few years of publication. It’s since been remade, and reinterpreted as a ballet, a musical, a one-man-show and more.

It’s rather telling that it took a recent English migrant to see the less polished and romantic Ginger Mick in the light of an epic hero who deserved a stage adaptation of his own.

‘One commentator I read said (Ginger Mick) brings everything Dennis brought to The Sentimental Bloke, but with this added topicality of World War I,’ says Morritt.

‘Dennis rails against this voice that he calls “the Toffs”; this voice which was obviously prevalent at the time which said that all soldiers are ugly, violent, good-for-nothing thugs with no etiquette and no style.

‘There’s a line he uses two or three times, which is “the gold inside a man”. All men are gold underneath. In some it’s obvious, in some it’s hidden away so deep it needs blasting away with dynamite. It says about Ginger that it took a world war to blast his crust away.

‘Ultimately, his point is that the quality of the man is an internal thing, not the way he dresses or his manners.

‘You get the impression that it’s picking up a changing attitude of the time, a dismantling of class barriers and Catholic/Protestant divisions that were no longer useful. After the war, all men were mates.’

This notion has long enjoyed its share of lip service, of course, from prime ministers and RSL chiefs on down, even if the socio-political realities it suggests remain open to debate every Anzac Day. It’s not an argument in which Morritt feels the need to engage.

‘No doubt there’s reverberations and resonances of this piece in the current climate,’ he says. ‘But it deals with humanity, ultimately. It just seems to have this context of war. I’ve not tried to draw any parallels.

‘You’ll never tread carefully enough not to offend anybody. The debates about the RSL and the ownership of the march—the range of views out there is extraordinary. So (the company) talked a lot about that, that it could be seemingly jingoistic, but I suppose because I’m not Australian it’s unlikely I’ll find myself in that territory.’

It was that aforementioned English Bard, as it happened, who first steered Morritt in the direction of Melbourne. He met his Australian wife, Anastasia Malinoff, when they played Posthumus and Imogen in a British production of Cymbeline in the early ’90s.

The pair formed Petty Traffikers one Christmas holiday in Sorrento, when they hired the Mechanics Institute hall for an adaptation of The Sentimental Bloke that went unexpectedly ballistic in 2000. Malinoff is currently touring the company’s tried and tested double bill of Henry Lawson adaptations The Drover’s Wife and The Bush Undertaker.

Ginger Mick at Gallipoli debuted as a four-man song-anddance act on Anzac Day last month. It stars Joe Clements as Mick, Bruce Kerr as his mate, Billo, with Brendan O’Connor and Craig Annis juggling peripheral characters, with Dennis’ colourful Aussie lexicon intact.

‘Dennis kept a diary for seven years of every slang term he ever heard,’ says Morritt. ‘His circles were all literary circles, so the kind of men he’s writing about don’t come from his direct experience, but an amalgamation of this dictionary poured out in these characters.

‘Some of them only pop in for two and three lines at a time—Digger Smith of Collin’wood, Lofty Craig of Queensland—but audiences just love them because they’re kind of recognisable. Then he kills them, and that’s incredibly moving. You don’t get that on the page, but you get it very strongly on the stage with very good actors.’

Ginger Mick may not be King Lear, but he’s clearly struck a chord with Melbourne audiences.

‘I respond to Dennis on a very instinctive level,’ says Morritt. ‘He’s actually very difficult to intellectualise about, and I’ve found there’s been a lot of people who feel the same way.

‘The momentum of this company and the rediscovery of these literary gems are down to the fact that there’s always been somebody interested, so I’ll just keep going as long as people want to see it.’

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