October 2019

Arts & Letters

Patricia Cornelius: No going gently

By Harry Windsor
‘Anthem’ marks the return of the Australian playwright’s working-class theatre

“The truth is, most theatre is fucking boring.” So says Patricia Cornelius, one of the country’s best playwrights. Long unproduced by mainstage companies, the Melbourne writer is experiencing an uptick in opportunities and acclaim, but her surging profile doesn’t seem to have affected the sweary indelicacy that is one of her most endearing qualities. “I don’t see it as therapy,” she says. “I can’t stand that shit.” 

It’s possible that “shit” is the most recurrent word in the Cornelius corpus. Her play SHIT, which was re-staged at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne earlier this year before travelling to the Venice Biennale, is about three women brutalised by a system that has stolen their sense of self-worth. The belief in one’s essential shitness is vocalised, too, by the girl who narrates Cornelius’s autobiographical novel My Sister Jill, about growing up poor with a violent drunk of a father, a former POW who spent years on the Thai–Burma Railway. 

Impoverishment and trauma link most of her characters, from the homeless junkies of LOVE to the refugees in her adaptation of Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard. The rap has always been that she’s too tough, too confronting, for the mainstream theatregoer. But the worm seems to have turned for Cornelius, in part due to the evangelism of writer and director Wesley Enoch, who programmed two of her shows at the Sydney Festival in 2017. 

“Wesley did me an enormous favour,” Cornelius says now. “He felt that he’d done me wrong in the past and that he wanted to honour me.” That honouring included an on-stage conversation with the playwright titled “Who’s Afraid of Patricia Cornelius?” – a riff on Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, a collaboration between Cornelius, Andrew Bovell, Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Reeves and composer Irine Vela, which premiered in the late 1990s at Melbourne Workers Theatre and remains one of Cornelius’s best-known works.

Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? interweaved stories about unhappy parents and their angry children, many of them living on the streets. Anxiety about money deforms the relationships of just about every character. “That play had a real impact,” Cornelius says, “both on audiences and on the industry. It became representative of something that was vital – talking about ourselves in a way that we never talk about ourselves. And [of  ] the mainstream’s aversion to telling those gritty stories.” 

It’s been more than 20 years since the play debuted, and 10 since the band got back together to adapt it for film (2009’s Blessed, directed by Ana Kokkinos). So it’s fitting that they’re doing so again in 2019 for Anthem, a sequel of sorts that offers the group a chance to explore anew what they want to say about the country. Speaking on a break from rehearsals, Cornelius is hopeful they’ll be able to explore the rise of nationalism, among other subjects, without being earnest or didactic. “What are the stories that are going to carry that weight and seduce people? I’m all into seduction. You would hardly believe it if you saw me.”

Anthem will again present a tapestry of strangers, structured around a choral piece from Bovell and bookended with scenes written by Tsiolkas that widen the play’s purview to the world. But it’s also distinct from Who’s Afraid… in being set mostly on trains – a Cornelius favourite. Half of SHIT, she admits, is filched from Melbourne’s infamous route 86 tram, and “public transport for most writers is just a bloody goldmine”. For Anthem, the writers and composer travelled together by train out to the suburbs, on research trips that sound more than a little ripe for parody.

Trains, buses and trams, according to Cornelius, are both levellers in terms of class and loci for anxieties about race, as all those ugly YouTube videos attest. They’re vivid, too: on the page, public transport provides a visual way that strangers can intersect. “You don’t get that terrible thing where you’re stuck in a fucking lounge room delivering text, where actors can’t move because you’ve got a couch and a table… all that naturalism that kills you.”

Though their subject matter might make Cornelius’s plays sound drably vérité, there’s nothing “realistic” about them. They flow rapidly and without signposting between different characters, locations and timeframes, often within individual scenes. Stage descriptions are kept to a minimum, with the actors occupying liminal spaces that can be both concrete and metaphoric; all the better to contrast the endless horizons of a character’s dreamscape with their squalid reality. In her 2007 play The Call, a David Hicks surrogate who works a succession of unpleasant jobs – plucking chickens, unclogging meat-processing machines – conjures up images of the Silk Road. In LOVE, which travelled to Venice alongside SHIT in July, a 19-year-old prostitute imagines herself a horse, beautiful and unbridled.

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The rehearsal process has seen the Anthem team grappling with questions far less avoidable now than they were 20 years ago, not least concerning issues of representation. “We’ve been talking about how we represent the Indigenous voice with clarity and with respect,” says Cornelius, “so that it’s not token. Those things are always difficult in the arts in this country, and especially because there’s not an Indigenous writer [on this].” It’s important, she says, that white writers stick their necks out by addressing race. “Because otherwise you continue to write a white theatre. You have to learn as you go and make mistakes.”

That approach has limits, she admits, and artists should also be cognisant of situations in which they “have no right to be speaking someone else’s story”. I ask her where she draws the line; writers, after all, spend their lives speaking other people’s stories. “You know… back off from traditional stories, for God’s sake. I think most people wouldn’t dare do that.” There’s a “currency”, she says, in hearing the voices of those who have actually experienced what it’s like to be black in Australia. “You can’t fit in those shoes, but what you can do is set up the antithesis to it. We still think that we have the greater ownership of the country – as we sort of do, in capital terms. There is immense poverty in Indigenous communities.”

Money circumscribes the lives of many of her characters, and the shame of its absence shaped her childhood. Cornelius has worked dozens of odd jobs over the years, though she probably won’t need to for a while: in March she was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for drama, administered by Yale and worth a cool $234,000. Though she’s yet to travel to “something-Haven” to collect the cheque, Cornelius thinks the award, even more than the Sydney Festival spotlight, has already led to a renewed interest in her work: “Because she’s been recognised internationally – and by Americans! So we [the mainstage companies] better hurry up.” 

The rise in her stock is probably also tied to widespread acknowledgement that a long-standing gender imbalance in Australian theatre has meant she’s done it tough. Enoch wrote an op-ed a couple of years ago in which he contrasted the opportunities afforded to Cornelius with those thrown at her Anthem collaborators Bovell and Tsiolkas. Cornelius herself points to some of the data-mining carried out by South Australian critic Jane Howard, whose research laid bare the extent of male-dominated programming at the country’s best funded theatres as recently as 2011, as evidence she’s been “getting done like a dinner.” And she’s assiduous throughout our interview in plugging her co-writer, Melissa Reeves, whose work has “gorgeous guilelessness and a wonderful sense of the abstract”. 

Cornelius briefly considered giving up the writing life in her 30s (she’s 66 now), but realised she was undertrained and didn’t have the skills to do anything else. “So I stuck it. I went where rents are cheaper. The dole was easier [then].” Her ongoing treatment of the effects of financial hardship could well have obscured her lyric ability in those fallow years. But her choice of subject matter is philosophical as well as a matter of taste. She’s dismissive of theatre in which the characters contemplate their navels instead of their own survival. “If I go across the bridge and count how many people have their hands out and they’re looking bloody wet and cold… I’m getting a bit platitudinous, sorry. But we avoid our real selves.”

The playwright’s interest in class, a subject she says is difficult to dramatise without a kind of voyeurism or “bullshit sentimentality”, doesn’t spring from any sense of civic duty, however. The Australian vernacular, our anger and our ugliness, is “terrific fodder”, she says. So, too, is her own background. Cornelius remembers the isolation engendered by her father, who was “mostly drunk and absolutely fucked by his experience”, and is unapologetic in mining it – “much to my siblings’ disdain”.

I ask if she was estranged from her father. “No, unfortunately, [I was] very much part of his life. I grew up with him. I wished my mum… I’m not telling you too much about that, I’ll get into fucking trouble. But it’s always that thing of how you review your own past and wish your mother had other options.”

There are a lot of underemployed, disappointed men in the Cornelius universe, many of them prone to lashing out violently. You could say that Cornelius cornered the market in toxic masculinity before it was in vogue. “It’s a wonder I’m not in a barrel of acid,” she laughs. She’s avoided embitterment partly by writing about it, though “you still have to find a way that doesn’t have people running in horror at the obviousness of it”. One of her bugbears, in fact, is writing that is baldly literal or autobiographical – or both. “A lot of theatre is becoming quite confessional, [as if] you have to have experienced it before you can write about it or perform it. And I feel like that’s not true.”

Cornelius prefers the stealth attack, threading personal experience into something grander. She argues you have to risk saying “something big about your own country or the world”, or else “it just remains a small story. And there’s too many of them.” One of the works of which it’s clear Cornelius is most proud is Do Not Go Gentle. The play’s characters are members of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic as well as residents of a nursing home, and the liquid movement between the two grants a mythic futility to even the most suburban of lives. 

Malthouse is staging a new production of Do Not Go Gentle in Melbourne next year, and Cornelius is also working on a film with director Catriona McKenzie. The playwright is at that age, she says, where it’s “unseemly” to squirm when praised. “And I quite like the praise!” A good thing, too: an ornery charmer with a poet’s gift for the crystalline image, Cornelius is exactly the kind of figure around whom cults coalesce. No chance of her going gently, either.

 

Anthem is premiering at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in October.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

© Daniel Pockett

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