The Sentimental Bloke: Review
Karen Meehan, ArtsHub
The fact that Stewart Morritt is British undoubtedly gives him a different perspective on Australian culture, but when his company, Petty Traffikers, issued a press release hailing poet C.J. Dennis as ‘Australia’s own Shakespeare’, the descriptor ‘balmy’ also crossed my mind. Isn’t that a bit like calling Ken Done ‘Australia’s own Picasso’?
But Morritt is in love: ‘I read (The Sentimental Bloke), and I thought: “Wow… I’ve been in this country for three years and nobody has ever mentioned C.J. Dennis… Three years and I’d suddenly discovered this gem, that nobody had ever talked about or recited, let alone performed. And it’s just beautiful. People think they know it, but they've never read it.”
Morritt’s company, Petty Traffikers—also shared with his performer-partner, Anastasia Malinoff—first became interested in performing poetic works when they created a version of Coleridge’s famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner for an annual summer season at Melbourne’s seaside town of Sorrento.
‘Because it’s a piece of poetry, there are no preconceptions about, theatrically, how it should be done, and it leads to all kinds of options,’ comments Morritt. ‘Beautiful language and the Word have always been my bag, and (Petty Traffikers) is now working on giving the word an interesting physical form, not just recitation.’
But, while being a fan of the classics might engender audiences, it does not gain such admiration from funders, Morritt has found: ‘I think in England they’re a bit better at looking backwards and finding stuff in the past that has relevance now, but here, everything is new—“new Australian”. You can’t get funding unless it’s “new Australian”.’
The seasons at Sorrento, he says, got started because he saw the number of potential punters who flooded to the coastal area each summer. He was reminded of the traditional British repertory seasons at ‘seaside resorts’ like Brighton—many of which no longer operate—and wondered if it might be possible to harness those crowds.
‘I thought: “All these people, milling around the streets. Put on some theatre and they’ll flood in!” Of course, that’s not reality. It is hard. I can see why people don’t do it (put on shows in the area), because it’s a big slog… And it’s a marketing nightmare: half the people are on holiday, so they don’t read the local papers; and the people that live down there don’t come out, because it’s tourist season.
‘But then, in the second year, I discovered the Bloke, and they were coming out of the woodwork. Suddenly the bookings were flooding in… This year we did Elena and the Nightingale, and we went back to square one… You think you’re producing a season of “theatre”, and people will come and see “theatre”, whatever you’ve got on offer, but it doesn’t work like that.’
Still, the Bloke has been a find for Morritt. Three sell-out seasons later, he now dreams of taking the piece on a national tour, and—should the opportunity present itself—in London for Australia Week.
‘It often takes an outsider to see what’s here, and somebody who—perhaps—has been weaned on the verse of Shakespeare, recognises the quality in the verse of Dennis,’ says Morritt. ‘But, then, that’s me. I was always a “classics” fan. In England I always wanted to do all the “old-fashioned” plays.’