The Influence

A major inspiration behind Jacek Koman’s current role is the father-son love story in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. By Maddee Clark.

Jacek Koman

Home, Gilead and Lila by American author Marilynne Robinson, and Jacek Koman (inset).
Credit: Kathy deWitt / Alamy (above), Sydney Theatre Company (inset)

Jacek Koman is an actor with an extensive career in film, theatre and television. He is known for his roles in Moulin Rouge!, Romulus, My Father, Children of Men, Defiance and Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries. His stage career stretches back to the late 1970s, when his first professional role was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Bielsko-Biała, Poland. After he arrived in Australia in the early ’80s, he performed for Anthill, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company and Company B with directors such as Neil Armfield, Benedict Andrews, Michael Kantor and Barrie Kosky. Koman is also the lead singer of the Melbourne band VulgarGrad, “Kings of Russian Criminal Sound”. When we speak, he is in rehearsals in Sydney for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with the Sydney Theatre Company, and has been practising his Brooklyn accent.

For The Influence, he is discussing the Marilynne Robinson book series that began with Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.

So you first read this book Gilead more than a decade ago?

Probably more than 10 years ago, when it was a standalone novel. It became part of a triptych, but now it’s a quadrilogy. There was Gilead, then there was Home (2008), Lila (2014) and the most recent instalment, Jack, that was published last year. Gilead made an incredible impression; it hit me very deeply and directly. It’s written in the form of a letter that a Congregationalist minister is addressing to his young son from late in life. The setting is a fictional town, Gilead in Iowa, in the 1950s. This minister’s son is seven, and he himself is approaching 80. He’s quite unwell and aware that he will die soon. So the letter to his son, it’s imagined, will be read when his son is an adult once the minister, John Ames, has passed away.

As the minister John is talking to his son, he recalls when he and his father, who was also a minister in the Congregationalist church, went on a journey looking for the grave of his grandfather, who lost his eye in the Civil War and died. And they find that grave, and there’s this wonderful moment of them cleaning it together.

I found the premise of this father-son relationship very moving. There’s a representation in Gilead of two significant father-son relationships and I’ve been able to relate both to the show I’m working on now, Death of a Salesman. The playwright, Arthur Miller, gave the play many different descriptions, one of which is as a love story between father and son. This love story turns into quite a turbulent one, which we are seeing unfold now in rehearsal.

Death of a Salesman was performed for the first time in 1949, close to the time line of Gilead. I didn’t think about it in terms of this idea of the love story between father and son when I saw it at other times in the past, or even when I reread it before rehearsals started, but when I started work on it I felt it directed me towards that idea.

The structure of the play is composed of what I see as shards of different time zones, different space–time continuums crashing into each other, which is so theatrical. So as an audience, we jump back and forth and we are able to witness times when things were seemingly happier, more loving, more unspoiled by the later experiences detailed in the work. 

So for me the parallels between the two works are in the depth of emotion in that father-son relationship, the relationship towards time in the intergenerational qualities of the address, and the way we are invited to feel like interlopers reading a document we we are not supposed to see – the additional thrill to that.

What’s the relationship between those works in the quadrilogy? Are they sequential?

It’s more episodic. Each time we are introduced to this world, which we already know a little of from a different perspective, and a new element will be introduced. So in Lila, the third instalment, we get to know the story from the perspective of John Ames’s second wife, whom he married in Gilead, whereas in Gilead she’s only really referred to from his perspective as the mother of his son. And there’s this other very flawed and interesting character, Jack, introduced in Gilead, whom we see throughout the four works, too. We walk through the story of several relationships between Jack – who is an adult when we meet him – and his father, then John’s own relationship with his father, who’s also a minister. Their relationship is much more turbulent, and within that turbulence there are issues of religion, true destination, grace and so on, which relate to my role as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. The process of realising Willy’s character for me has just started, so I’m really talking about something that I hope will inspire me rather than something that I already know has been done. I know it affected me in a way that’s called upon in the task ahead of me.

You’ve carried this work in your mind for a long time. Have you had the opportunity to draw on it in the past?

No, I haven’t. It’s important to know that as actors there’s a specificity to what we do and how we do it. It’s not so much that you’ll see something – some piece of art or music – and it inspires you, and then you say, “Okay, I’ll go off and act in response to that.” It feels a little different to how an artist can take a moment of inspiration, and then they get to run to the studio and start working on something that they felt an impulse to make in that moment.

From my perspective, it’s more that we collect things, we all do, and hold on to them. Throughout your life as you see and hear things, you end up with a bag of inspirational moments, memories, pieces of things you’ve seen, heard and read. Because we don’t really choose what production we’re in – well, to an extent we do, but your role is generally given to you to work within. So then as the right time comes, you reach into your magical bag of tricks. That’s how influence works. I hate to call them tricks, they are not – they are often profound experiences.

I’ve also since come across more critical opinions about the work, which I kind of agree with, strangely, so I’m torn. One critic made the observation that, because it’s addressed as a letter and the minister writes about how much time he spends observing his son at play from a distance, there’s little mention of their actual interactions. Their perspective was that as a dad, if you love him so much, why don’t you be with him more, instead of just writing to him? As a father I saw some validity in that charge, I think, but it never crossed my mind as I was reading it. I didn’t have that critique of it at the time. I want to hold on to my experience of it.

The mode of address is what I aspire to as an actor. It’s subtle but powerful, direct but not patronising. That is a strong mode of inspiration to me. I want to tell stories in that way; I don’t want to be pompous.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "Jacek Koman".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.