Theatre

A long-overdue revival of Oriel Gray’s The Torrents is brilliantly cast and beautifully produced, highlighting the work of a talented Australian playwright who was never given the recognition she deserved. By Steve Dow.

Oriel Gray’s The Torrents

Rob Johnson, Geoff Kelso, Celia Pacquola and Tony Cogin in the Black Swan and STC production of Oriel Gray’s The Torrents.
Credit: Philip Gostelow

The Sydney-born playwright Oriel Gray didn’t particularly like journalists but enjoyed journalists’ banter and their constant search for a scoop. When her ABC reporter partner, John Hepworth, joined the Canberra press gallery prior to the 1949 federal election that ousted her beloved prime minister Ben Chifley, Gray discovered journos went to lots of great parties. “Your head spun from unbelievably believable gossip, suppositions and innuendos both political and sexual, as much as it did from the variegated liquor,” she marvelled decades later.

Her Irish Orangeman grandfather started a newspaper, The Burrangong Argus, in the New South Wales town of Young, and her father, Ben Bennett, worked on the newspaper before becoming a senior public servant. A staunch unionist and socialist, Bennett would take his two children, Grayce and Oriel, to the Eight Hour Day marches in Sydney; as the 1930s Depression descended, he warned his daughters of the mounting Fascist threat in Europe. The girls’ mother, Ida Mary, had died of pneumonia when Oriel was six.

Born in 1920, Oriel had wanted to become a journalist herself, but this was “practically impossible for a woman in those days”. Instead, an English teacher, Miss Brown, who each Friday had her class act out Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, told Oriel she had the talent to be a playwright. Thus bitten, Oriel went with Grayce, her elder by nine years and “mother-companion” who dreamed of being an actress, to see Irwin Shaw’s experimental war play Bury the Dead at the Sydney Conservatorium in 1937. It was like no drama they had ever seen, with corpses coming to life. Thrilled, Oriel and Grayce joined the company, the New Theatre, and then, not quite 18, Oriel signed up with Grayce as a member of the Communist Party, which oversaw the company. Her sister “was always a more fervent communist than I”, Gray later insisted.

It was generally only leftist theatres prior to the 1950s that systematically produced Australian plays. Oriel drifted into acting and met and married fellow New Theatre actor John Gray, “a party member, an unstable element”, although their marriage did not last. What should have lasted was Oriel’s writing, beyond the initial agitprop radio plays for 2KY, then a Labor radio station, and the somewhat blue and less than poetic satirical revues she was “pushed into” writing for the New Theatre, The Marx of Time (1942) and Let’s Be Offensive (1943). She successfully adapted Henry Lawson’s short stories into Lawson (1943), but there were highest hopes for The Torrents (1955), a newsroom comedy set in a town modelled on Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, where Hepworth’s family lived.

Black Swan State Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company have together revived The Torrents in a production that premiered in Perth and is now playing at the Sydney Opera House, helping to belatedly correct a great injustice. Despite being joint winner – with Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – of the 1955 Playwrights Advisory Board play competition, Gray’s script, which the panel thought the “more complete play” according to judge Leslie Rees, sank into obscurity. While the Doll went on to become arguably the most successful Australian play ever, The Torrents was not produced by a professional company until 1996, when the State Theatre Company of South Australia finally staged it.

Lawler has argued the Doll was initially produced because it was cheaper to stage than The Torrents. But Gray was “sacrificed”, Merrilee Moss argues persuasively in Australasian Drama Studies, “by the patriarchal discourse for the benefit of the sacrificer, the Australian national theatre”. Now director Clare Watson brings us this wonderful revival, with actor-comedian Celia Pacquola perfectly cast as Jenny Milford, who causes havoc in the 1890s newsroom of the Koolgalla Argus by daring to apply for a job as a journalist, a “New Woman … fighting for our right to an independent wage, an independent mind, an independent life”.

Pacquola carries off Jenny with quiet irony, wittily appealing to the vanities of the men in the newsroom to push the town from its dying reliance on goldmining to a more environmentally sustainable future, echoing our coal-obsessed present. Engineer Kingsley Myers (Luke Carroll) presents the newspaper with an ambitious irrigation scheme that will hold the river against drought and flood, painting a vision of fruit trees rather than mineshafts. But the newspaper’s financial backers erect a wall of resistance, so Jenny must convince bushy-bearded alpha Irish editor Rufus Torrent (Tony Cogin) of the cause. She finds herself head cheerleader for Torrent’s beaten-down, forward-thinking son, Ben, who supports Kingsley’s scheme and is played with well-judged comic diffidence by Gareth Davies: “Oh damn you old – cautious – safe men,” Ben tells the newspaper’s financial directors. “You make the world unsure!” It is a lament for Torrent’s age, and for ours.

The production’s rhythms quickly envelop you in the characters, and the charms of their personal foibles keep this play humming. The casting is spot on, from the physically funny supporting newsroom players – Scotsman Jock McDonald (Sam Longley), old gnomish Christy (Geoff Kelso) and puppyish Bernie (Rob Johnson) – to the masterstroke of having Wiradjuri actor Carroll as the engineer, declaring “it’s the land and the saving of it that I love”, and Steve Rodgers as loud, bombastic investor John Manson. A couple of minor characters who simply echoed the money-obsessed outlook of Manson have been judiciously edited from the story.

Renée Mulder’s busy old-school newsroom set design is exquisite and faithful to Gray’s detailed descriptions: gorgeous period-looking wooden desks, doors and a staircase, and bundles of newspapers piled precariously high on either side of the stage. The set does not alter during the show, but it is more than enough. There’s a restrained elegance and attention to detail, too, in Mulder’s costumes, caught in this transition period between the Victorian and Edwardian eras – men in waistcoats and ties or printers’ aprons, and corseted Gwynne (Emily Rose Brennan), Ben Torrent’s fiancée, in bonnet and petticoats. Gwynne falls under the feminist spell of Jenny, who wears a tie to denote her self-perception as the men’s equal.

The framing of the production, however, is a redundant addition. The show begins with Pacquola introducing the play, explaining cheerfully the significance of The Torrents in Australian theatre history, in front of the plush, communist-red theatre curtains. Gray’s name descends from the ceiling in ghastly neon tubing to bookend the production, but I doubt the playwright would have fancied the self-conscious showboating. Better that a professional theatre company should stage her work to rectify the historical wrong, although since its inaugural season in 1979, Sydney Theatre Company, situated in Gray’s home town, has ignored her plays until now.

In her early 40s, Oriel Gray quit playwriting and devoted herself to writing television soaps such as Bellbird. It is a great tragedy of Australian theatre, contemplating what else she might have otherwise written for the stage had she continued. In his 2009 book Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century, John McCallum argues Gray “would have been regarded today as a major dramatist, had she a theatre to write for”. While Gray considered herself Australia’s first resident writer in Australian theatre – she was paid £2 and 10 shillings a week to compose work for the New Theatre – mainstream media very rarely deigned to review amateur shows, particularly in a theatre that was a front for the Communist Party. Gender explains Gray’s lack of professional productions, but also likely does Gray’s politics, despite her having quit the Communist Party in 1950.

There are other Oriel Gray gems waiting to be discovered, but most are unlikely to be revived today: Western Limit (1946), Had We But World Enough (1950) and Burst of Summer (1960) all deal with racial prejudice against Indigenous Australians in rural and remote places. Given Australia now has prominent, successful Indigenous playwrights, today we expect such stories to be told with the authentic voice of experience. The same could be said for Gray’s postwar immigrant play, Sky Without Birds, which premiered in 1952.

Perhaps this leaves The Torrents to shine alone from Gray’s career. While nothing in the play challenges leftist ideals, it remains much more memorable than she gave herself credit for. In the denouement, Rufus Torrent reflects on collective ideals: “And who cares, in the long breadth of the years who dreamed the dream, so long as the common rest of us made it come true?” You can hear Gray’s irony in the line, given to a man glossing over a woman’s achievement in changing the world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Gray matters". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.