Portrait

In the writing room with playwright Declan Greene By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Playwright, director and dramaturge Declan Greene

1. Spidery handwriting is scrawled over almost every inch of the large freestanding whiteboard, demarcating a complex web of scenes, scene transitions and narrative arcs. Melbourne playwright, director and dramaturge Declan Greene crouches down to scrawl notes in the only sliver of space left.

The room is midsummer-hot, but the back of Greene’s fitted T-shirt inexplicably avoids being sweat-stuck. “Okay, guys,” he says. He turns, fresh-faced, towards me and my co-writer, then laments without actually lamenting: “I know that took longer than expected.”

My co-writer and I glance wearily at each other. We’ve been in front of the whiteboard for six hours. “This has been useful, though,” Greene says, blond five o’clock shadow glinting in the sundown light streaming through the open widows of an upstairs room at the Malthouse Theatre. “I’ll leave you guys to it now, if you still wanted to get some rewriting in this evening.”

Greene cheerios, scoops up his sparse belongings, and exits the room, Energizer-bunny-alert, in skin-tight black jeans. Surrender Dorothy.

2. Greene grew up in the country. His parents sent him to a high school two-and-a-half hours away. He was “such a screaming faggot, they probably knew I wouldn’t survive: a shrieking attention-seeking wannabe goth homo, obsessed with Marilyn Manson in a confused, half-lustful way”.

Baby-queer Greene made friends with “the cool drama girls obsessed with Tori Amos. Their boyfriends would usually be the kind of kids beating the shit out of me. They could still say stuff, but they weren’t allowed to hurt me.” Surrender Dorothy.

3. Greene is dramaturge to my playwright, but first is a playwright and theatre-maker himself. When I see him, his latest play, Melancholia, an adaptation of Lars von Trier’s film of the same name, is a week from debut.

“Declan gave us some more rewrites, just today.”

Inside the rehearsal room, two Nordic-looking women run through a scene. Sitting watching them are the director and an assortment of actors and staff.

The rehearsal room descends into a Waiting for Godot-esque examination of Greene’s latest scene tweaks. “I think this needs to come from an emotional place, not an ideas place.” “No. Well, yes; I agree. But we have to be careful here that Justine is not being too superior.” “I’m actually confused by the rhythm of this section.” “Well… I don’t think she’s superior but, I mean, she does mock her…”

I slowly circle the rehearsal room, taking in the A4 costume renderings, a tiny model rendition of the set. An ostentatious white dress has slid from the costume rack. It perches upright on the wooden floorboards, so stiff it’s retained most of its shape. Surrender Dorothy.

4. Greene wrote his first full-length play, The Lost Art of Funk and Soul, at age 15. Set on a volcano, the story spanned centuries, and was written to be performed by the playwright, as himself. “It was basically unperformable. The title had nothing to do with the content.” Which is possibly – or not—related to the fact that High School Declan was obsessed with South Park and The Simpsons.

5. I find Greene on the mezzanine level of the Malthouse: earphones in, watching von Trier’s Melancholia on his laptop. We relocate to a quieter spot at the end of the floor.

“I was on this date,” Greene laughs. “In 2012. He was a fine arts student. I learnt very fast that he was much smarter than me. He was, like, this absolute cinephile nut. I would lie, and pretend I knew all the films, and then I’d go watch them afterwards. It was this constant game of catch-up. We went and saw Melancholia. I wanted to burst into tears within the first 10 minutes, but I repressed it for the entire three-hour film.” Greene cringes, as if he can still remember the emotional strain. “It seemed really theatrical, even though it was this epic spec-fic or sci-fi cosmic ballet between the planets. It was really about how we live our lives, what we place value on.”

Greene began researching, and realised there were quite a few adaptations of von Trier’s other works across different forms. He wrote a treatment for the play, which was accepted by von Trier’s Danish agent. The work would have to be in the spirit of the original.

6. In his university years, Greene wanted to be an actor. He went for auditions. Didn’t get call-backs. “I realised I had a really limited acting range so I started writing stuff for myself. But then I realised other people could also play camp loudmouths better than me.” At university, he switched from theatre theory to arts history. A political awakening followed. He met his best friend, Ash. They started doing “weird drag theatre”. Surrender Dorothy.

Greene rose to prominence as a theatre-maker on his own terms: one half of the Sisters Grimm. Founded in 2006, the duo went from making fringe experimental theatre in found spaces to collaborating with some of the most established theatres in the country.

Greene is currently resident artist at the Malthouse, with a string of successful directorial, dramaturgy and writing credits under his belt. Melancholia, though, is a whole new second act.

8. Greene’s first commission back in the day, which wasn’t really back in the day at all, was with the Melbourne Theatre Company. As part of their youth development program, he wrote “this insane horror play called Pretty Baby. It was full of David Cronenbergesque body horror. I thought it was fucking amazing. I got a phone call from the MTC. I thought they were calling me to say they were putting it on, because it was so good. But it was actually their lawyers.” Surrender Dorothy.

MTC was running a fairly conservative play, The Swimming Club. Declan and some mates had devised a parody: The Rimming Club. To promote it, they’d reproduced a poster for The Swimming Club, but replaced the faces of the entire cast with anuses. “They said we were in violation of copyright, and to take the poster down. They were really mad about it. They were so officious. I mean, we were emerging playwrights. With no money or agency.”

Indignancy creeps into his voice.

9. It’s two weeks after my interview with Greene. The well-heeled matinee audience for Malthouse’s acclaimed production of Blackie Blackie Brown guffaws around me. Nakkiah Lui’s writing is, as always, on point: hold-your-belly funny; pumping with politics that prompts visible discomfort. Greene’s fingerprints are dusted across the direction, all of it surreal, hilarious. At one point, a pair of giant wrinkled testicles billow out, flooding three quarters of the stage.

10. “So we cut and pasted figures that looked almost identical to the ones on their poster,” Greene recounts, triumphantly. “Then we pasted anuses back on their faces and sent it back saying, ‘Is this okay, then?’ ”

The playwright looks ponderous. “I don’t know why I thought they’d put my play on while I was doing that. But it was impossible to stage anyway … There was a giant monster eating yoghurt from a pot … The set was supposed to be destroyed after every single performance. I’ve chilled out a bit since then.”

Tattooed on Greene’s gym-fit inner arm, in thick black cursive letters, are the words exactly as they appear in the film, broomstick-scrawled in the sky, by the Wicked Witch of the West: SURRENDER DOROTHY.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 11, 2018 as "Yellow brick road". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.