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Drover’s Wife: Interview

Australian Classical Theatre - a scene from The Drover's Wife

Interview with Kathy Bowlen, ABC TV’s Stateline

Petty Traffikers bring Henry Lawson’s work to the stage

Kathy Bowlen: As production companies go, Petty Traffikers is about as lean as you can get. It’s a sparseness which is matched by the landscapes Henry Lawson wrote about and the dialogue the actors deliver. Petty Traffikers are performing The Bush Undertaker and The Drover’s Wife, and every word spoken was written by Lawson, all in the third person. Artistic director, Stewart Morritt, says Lawson’s writing is up there with the best.

Stewart Morritt: Absolutely up there. I reckon Lawson’s short stories are as good as James Joyce’s and certainly D.H. Lawrence. That’s where they fit with me.

Kathy Bowlen: Morritt’s wife, actor Anastasia Malinoff, has memories of studying Lawson as a Melbourne schoolgirl but says she’s discovering it afresh.

Anastasia Malinoff, Actor: Yes, it was, actually, because I think the depth and the loneliness in it—I didn’t pick that up as a younger reader. There’s just this depth of sadness and loneliness and struggle that were so prevalent then in society, 100 years ago. It’s just rich with that information.

Kathy Bowlen: Academic Chris Wallace-Crabbe says Lawson’s writing powerfully evokes the struggles of the era.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Emeritus Prof. University of Melbourne: He’s a central figure but a central figure of a particular period. The gold rushes were over, farming was harsh, people were very poor and the Depression was coming on, so he expresses the toughness of response that drovers and people like that had.

Kathy Bowlen: If adapting Lawson’s short stories has been a challenge, imagine being a dog in each play.

Grant Mouldey, Actor: Well, you’re not saying anything for the entire story, and you’re actually in the situation where as a dog you’re actually thinking conversation all the time, even if you’re not being talked to. You’re looking after your master or your mistress constantly. So, yeah, it’s more work than being a person, really.

Kathy Bowlen: The decision not to rewrite the piece but to have performers describing their own actions as they bring Lawson’s words to life puts the focus squarely on the writing. Stewart Morritt is unsure whether being a foreigner made him view the works differently to those of us who ‘did’ Lawson at school and left him there when we moved on.

Stewart Morritt: I don’t carry any baggage about Lawson. I suppose I respond on a level just to the characters, and the characters are great. They’ve got huge heart and they belong to this landscape which is extraordinary and they do this extraordinary work.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe: Someone who comes in from outside has the freedom, the clarity of eye, sometimes to say, “Hey, you’re not looking at what’s right under your nose, you’re not looking at what should matter for you guys.”

Stewart Morritt: I couldn’t understand why I’d been in the country four years before I heard about The Sentimental Bloke, and I couldn’t understand why it’s not just such a part of what people talk about and why it’s not re-examined every three years like Hamlet would be in England.

Anastasia Malinoff: It’s a shame that the younger generation now don’t have that information. They’re not privy to it. There’s a whole generation out there that just know all his stories, and he’s such a prolific writer.

Kathy Bowlen: The Bush Undertaker and The Drover’s Wife were performed to rave reviews at the Castlemaine Festival, and Stewart Morritt is considering taking the plays on a statewide tour.

Stewart Morritt: I thought, well, I’ll make it my area to actually keep bringing back these gems.