Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
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It’s dusk at the crossroads in inner Sydney. Tom Wright, associate director of the Sydney Theatre Company, and I are returning children after a play-date. The two five-year-old girls swing around the traffic pole, while in the background Tom’s eight-year-old son keens an argument for a visit to the video-game store. The boy has the persistence of a small chainsaw, or a mosquito.
“But you said— But why can’t I, you said—”
“I’ll have that once more,” Tom interrupts calmly, “this time without resentment.”
I laugh, incredulous. “Is that how you direct your actors?” If this is what I think it is, I may have just stumbled on the Holy Grail of parenting – how to get them to do what you want, happily – from a professional who directs people for a living.
“No,” Tom smiles. “To them I say, ‘I’ll have that once more. This time without acting.’”
I visit Tom during week three of the five-week rehearsal period for Aeschylus’ The Oresteia (his own, sparkling adaptation, currently being performed until 4 July). The rehearsal room is a grand space on the wharf across from the Harbour Bridge. Once, it would have housed bales of wool or war supplies ready for loading; now, the nine young actors in the STC’s permanent group, The Residents, are being led through the paces of intergenerational revenge here. The wall in front of them has been converted into a massive blackboard chalked with a ten-generational family tree of the ancients – from Zeus’s unions with Leda and a nymph, down to Helen, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra. On other walls there are photographs, sensual and eerie, to evoke a mood for the actors; sketches of the clever modern costumes (“Cassandra in very bad Jimmy Choo imitations,” as Tom says); extracts from Graves on the play and some pages of Jung. The room is calm and focused, though there are over a dozen people here: set and costume designers, a music director, an assistant director, a photographer and me. This is a room in which something personal, or perhaps difficult and private, is being brought out in front of us, practised and under direction, because we cannot, or do not, do it for ourselves.
The actors stand on their marks in gestures of costumes – hooded parkas over jeans or, for the Danaë and Clytemnestra, long skirts. Orestes has returned to find his sister Electra at their father’s gravesite, which is being interpreted vertically, like a roadside memorial with flowers. Electra is in skinny jeans and a jumper, her face, beautiful as a Giotto, covered with a black veil. The girl is so powerful in her grief for her father that I want to look away, or at least to be in the dark. Tom walks about in Blundstones but makes no sound; he is a picture of focused attention. Once, he stops to pull up Clytemnestra’s hood. The scene continues, till one of the Danaë forgets to come in with her line.
“Sorry, sorry,” the young woman says, out of character.
“Hey, there’s no sorry here, remember?” Tom chides gently.
“No. Sorry,” she says again and smiles back.
Later, I ask him about what happened. “I’ve noticed a tendency, particularly in young women,” he says, “to frequently apologise, which means their default position is that they are in the wrong. So, partly in a joking way, our rule is ‘don’t apologise’ for something like forgetting a line or a piece of direction. It’s to do with self-esteem.” The other rule in the room is similarly themed: the actors are only to praise one another. “Because,” Tom laughs at himself, “the only criticism comes from me, the benign patriarch.”
But the issue is a serious one. The difference between what works and what doesn’t in the theatre, Tom explains, “is simply confidence”. So a large part of directing is keeping this up in the actors and part of his job is “to absorb the anxiety in the room”. The Residents are aged between 24 and 35 and, while they are all professionals, Tom believes it takes at least ten major productions before an actor is truly in command of their instrument – which is themselves – onstage. The process is particularly hard for the women, because they have to learn to be confident in their bodies “with 200 people looking at them and not feel like a flirt or a slut or guilty for being the centre of attention”.
The stage is an inherently sexualised arena. “As soon as the spotlight is on you, it makes for an imaginary world, which is an erotic place. And there’s a large group of people sitting in the dark watching as if they are not there, which is the definition of voyeurism.” Tom says it usually takes a female actor till she is about 40 to overcome the sexism that makes young women uncomfortable and self-conscious. “So you get the situation where you have a woman of 40 playing Hedda Gabler or Portia.” But, tragically, it’s just at that age, in the world we live in, that she encounters another form of sexism: she is considered too old to hire.
One of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s aims with The Residents is to speed up the actors’ development, “so, instead of reaching that point at 40, they reach it at 30”. “And how do you do that?” I ask. I am genuinely curious; if this crippling effect of patriarchy can be unlearnt, we all need to know how.
Tom opens out his hands. “How do you grow up?”
It’s both not an answer and the only one. I think of our two little girls and wonder aloud whether he’ll be trying to teach this confidence to his daughter.
“Of course,” he says, “but it’s too early for her! She needs to learn boundaries and guidelines before she learns liberation.”
The need to “grow up” is an issue in another sense for male actors, who often won’t have the emotional maturity to play, say, Hamlet till their mid- to late-forties. “Some of us,” Tom admits, “stay young in our lives for too long. I’ve resisted [growing up]. I don’t drive. I live like a student. I don’t buy clothes – I find them left behind in laundromats. I don’t want to grow up.”
But when I look at him I do see a grown-up: someone who can imagine lives from different points of view. I see someone who has one foot in an imaginary world that makes sense of this one, in which he doesn’t bother to drive or save money or buy clothes. It is a world in which he can imagine an ancient grave as a roadside shrine or Cassandra in heels, or, indeed, the liberation of young women from the tyranny of scrutiny – and I will buy a ticket to that every time.