Review by Thomas Gregory
The history of theatre in Australia goes back millennia. Even the history of European theatre in Australia goes back centuries. To even attempt to offer a glimpse into the stories and people of such a broad topic in ninety minutes sounds like folly. This doesn't seem to have deterred Dr Rob Reid, however, as they power-speak their way from First Nations to post-pandemic futures in this lecture presented at La Mama Theatre.
To say "power-speak" is to understate it. For those who listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed in order to fit in more each day, Rob's voice may be a comfortable experience. For the rest of us, we hope only to keep up. Fortunately, their passion for the stories they tell is so evident that the occasional lost word is not so concerning. With wild gesticulations, creatively-crafted story-telling, and the aid of a few select images, the presentation is not one you could sleep through.
To say "lecture", though, is to overstate it. There is very little lecturing involved, and Dr Rob appears conflicted at times about whether this is a good thing. With their role as a part of Australian theatre for decades, I cannot help but feel they would be more comfortable leaving their heart on their sleeve rather than trying to hide it behind an almost sheer academic veil.
An Unforgivably Brief History of Australian Theatre summarises what could be quite an enjoyable book. For those unversed in the stories, tales of touring tigers, riotous convicts, and horses on treadmills are undoubtedly appealing. There is an impulse to go home at the end of the night and read up on the fantastic events that brought about what we see today.
Dr Rob makes a well-praised effort to point out the problem of discussing Australian theatre history in light of our failures to properly record important moments like the gold-rush operas of Chinese immigrants or the first written works of convict theatre. They are careful to point out their own inability to discuss the tens of thousands of years of performance by First Nations people. In discussing the horrors that involved turning the rituals of First Nations people into barbaric entertainment for tourists, Reid is both honest and humble, reflecting on the inadequacy of any telling they could give.
A central theme of the night is Australian theatre's desire to re-invent itself, with a metaphorical burning of the bridges behind it. Dr Rob points out specific theatre works, such as Struck Oil, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and Stolen, as perfect points to delineate between significant shifts in the history of our culture. They lament that as an "idiotic youth" they hated Lawler's play, but can now see how well it would have captured the life and feelings of a very specific demographic, an important demographic of theatre-goers at the time.
When discussing the theatre of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Rob stumbles often. Not only is there so much source material to choose from, but their own story is so intertwined that they clearly found it hard to know what to include. In the end, more time is given to the thirty years immediately after colonisation than is given to any moment after 1970.
A part of me would have enjoyed it if this moment in the night shrugged off the attempts at academic discourse and simply became the discussion of a single practitioner's journey. After all, the role of small theatres in Melbourne appeared as important to Dr Reid as the second-largest annual arts festival in the world, or the role university theatre clubs played in producing some of the nation's most important performers today.
Dr Rob ends the night lamenting that we are in the final days of what they call the "five eras of Australian theatre". They lay out how the government has slowly been eroding the arts in Australia, especially theatre that isn’t a part of “the flagship groups”. The argument is clear and compelling and doesn’t get bogged down in exact numbers. Dr Rob believes that subsidised theatre is all but dead. However, they are confident that a future for Australian theatre may exist as it reaches new audiences.
Reid's humour fits many of the audience members, who were of a certain similar demographic - older, well-embedded in Melbourne theatre, many clearly connected directly to the speaker. However, for the "new audience" that Dr Rob believes will be the future of theatre, the humour would be lost. For those under thirty, few would recognise "Mother and Son", and even fewer still Rob Brough (who stopped presenting "Family Feud" in 1995).
The PowerPoint slides offered to complement the presentation were what one might expect from a lecturer in the nineties, and were made all the less impressive by being projected onto a folded sheet gaffer-taped to the wall. The cost of a standing projection screen should be within the budget of any performance at La Mama.
Dr Rob claims that theatre hasn't existed since the end of 2019, while my experience as a semi-regular theatre-goer and practitioner has been quite the opposite - the pandemic has only shown how willing our theatre companies have been to adapt to any situation.
An Unforgivably Brief History of Australian Theatre is a passionately-produced presentation that is certainly not a lecture. Sadly, it also isn't as contemporary in its address as it might hope to be and is offered so sloppily as to be hard to take seriously. While the stories and people talked about are incredible, and Dr Rob clearly cares about having these tales told, greater efforts in making this a performance would have produced something more worthy of the content.