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Malthouse's new artistic director Matthew Lutton again embraces his dark side, bringing Picnic at Hanging Rock to the stage.

By Steve Dow.

New Malthouse artistic director Matthew Lutton

Matthew Lutton
Credit: SARAH WALKER

The penguin had to die. Adam and Eve killed the creature, but apparently God willed the act. The audience was certainly shocked: they had got to know the penguin, played by an actress, Zindzi Okenyo, in a suit. Suddenly, she was being skinned.

Perth-born theatre wunderkind Matthew Lutton was directing Adam, Eve, episode one of The Mysteries: Genesis, adapted by playwright Lally Katz for the Sydney Theatre Company’s Residents group. Katz recalls Lutton had the cast appear nude in the play, staged in 2009, because it was set in the Garden of Eden.

“It was Matt’s idea that the garden would be all snow, and there was this penguin that they made friends with, and they had to kill the penguin. So there was all this blood on the white. It was a dark sense of humour, but I think he really felt for the little penguin.”

Lutton, now 31, recently installed as artistic director of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, is aghast at Katz’s reverential recollection of their first collaboration.

“There was no blood,” he says, half smiling. “No blood. She got that wrong. She’s exaggerating.

“We set Eden in the last remaining unexplored place, underneath Antarctica. Adam and Eve didn’t know they were cold. As soon as they gained knowledge, they immediately became freezing, and their childhood friend, this giant albino penguin, needed to be skinned.

“All we did was unzip the back of the giant penguin suit, and pull Zindzi out, screaming, onto the floor. It was utterly terrifying.”

In rehearsals, Lutton conceived the penguin slaughter would last about a minute, with “pulling of skin, and bones cracking, and a horrific sense of a body being pulverised”, he says.

“I was rehearsing it to this really assaulting sound. And then Lally came up and said,” Lutton lowers his pitch, “ ‘Maybe try it without the sounds; maybe that’d be a bit more confronting.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah.’

“Anyway, she was spot on. When we played it in silence and just left the human voice wailing, it was very confronting, in opposition to a child wonderland.”

Lutton leans back now in the chair, a pen in his right hand, the left gripping an imaginary glass apple filled with milk, like the one in Adam, Eve. He mimes drinking from the apple, while his eyes roll back in his head.

Lutton has taken over from Marion Potts at the Malthouse during a time of great change at the helm of several eastern seaboard main stages. From Sydney, Belvoir St Theatre’s new artistic director, Eamon Flack, has watched his friend’s quick progression since Lutton started his own theatrical company, ThinIce, at age 17.

Flack has said Lutton “just seemed to imagine a tunnel through the theatrical landscape and walk down it while I banged my head against the walls for years”.

Lutton remains very competitive, but the early bravado has been tempered. “When I started creating,” he says, “I never really doubted what I was doing. Any moments of hurt or embarrassment seemed to pass quite quickly. I’d hurtle through them. In the last five years, I do doubt things more. I do have moments wondering whether this is all façade and charlatan activity – that’s probably a healthy reflection.”

Lutton plays piano and double bass: music turned him on to the “joyful mathematics” of sound and the deep pleasure of improvisation, exploring patterns and tonalities. He directs opera in between his often confrontational spoken-word theatre, and he finds literature, spoken word, architecture, psychology and music are all interconnected: “All those forms allow an expansive dreaming.”

As a day student at Hale School, an Anglican boys’ college in coastal Wembley Downs, 10 kilometres north-west of Perth, Lutton dreamed of conducting an orchestra – he was on a music scholarship among more affluent students – before being given the drama studio keys in year 10 and 11 to devise his own “crazy” plays. “I was empowered to make stuff,” he says.

His mother, psychiatrist Susan Lutton, once asked the eldest of her two children why his works were so dark. Her concerns were less for Lutton’s mental state than about aesthetics and joy. “Why don’t you offer more beauty?” she asked.

Lutton says his mother has an “overwhelming sense of empathy”, and taught him to listen. The “provocations”, meanwhile, of his architect-turned-urban-activist father, Linley Lutton, a campaigner against poorly devised development in Perth, taught him “humour and irreverence, a sense of cheek, but also an interest in what we construct and place in the world”.

But while Linley has been a role model for cultural leadership, Matt took account of the personal toll when his father spoke publicly against foreshore development: “I’d never seen him so anxious and hurt sometimes.”

Professional life bleeds into the personal: Lutton shared a tiny townhouse in Carlton with Lally Katz for a couple of years after arriving in Melbourne in 2011 to work as associate director at the Malthouse. Playwright Declan Greene crashed on the couch for a couple of months and jokes it was “like the Matt Lutton Home for Wayward Artists”.

Greene says Lutton doesn’t necessarily chase darkness, but is interested in the “extremities of the human condition, and transcendence and transformation through art”.

Lutton directed Greene’s play I Am a Miracle last year. In the program, Lutton drew parallels between its real-life subject, African-American Marvin Lee Wilson, executed by lethal injection in Texas in 2012, and the “ongoing repercussions for Indigenous deaths in custody and the thousands of refugees currently imprisoned in Australia”.

Greene recalls Lutton poring over the libretto of The Flying Dutchman in preparation to direct the opera in New Zealand in 2013. Lutton thinks “musically and sonically”, says Greene. Katz agrees, and says Lutton “sort of taps things out as he’s thinking them. Everything I’ve seen of his has a musicality to it. He’s great with paying attention to the rhythms in texts and the music in a spoken-word play.”

It’s certainly true, Lutton says, that he rocks back and forth in his chair while rehearsals are going well. If he is sitting still, all may not be well.

It often worries him that most of his friends are inside the arts; he strives to find friends outside. He smiles when asked if he’s single. “I think I’m partnered, as of recently,” he says. “I met a boy who I’m quite infatuated with.”

The new man, Russell Hooper, writes policy on domestic violence for the Victorian government that is so eloquent it makes Lutton question the need for art. But this is quickly followed by his boyfriend’s affirmation of the emotional power of synthesising real experience into stories.

 

Growing up in the inner-western Perth suburb of Wembley, Lutton spent much time at nearby Lake Monger, hiding in the weeping willows, sitting on tree branches, spying on people. Constructing forts and cubbyhouses was a forerunner to building stage sets.

He’d walk the lake, populated by black swans and hissing geese, with his maternal grandmother, Bethwyn Taylor, a theosophist who had taught divinity at an Anglican girls’ school and liked to paint impressionist-style landscapes. He’d sit in her studio as she painted.

Music drove Lutton through high school, and Bethwyn provided the spark. “She took me frequently to the symphony orchestra when I was very young. She introduced me to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. I learnt the piano and, when I was 14, she asked me to teach her the piano. I remember trying to get her curled fingers to play scales. She couldn’t do it, because she was too old.”

When Lutton was 17, Bethwyn died, and the family moved into her house at Doubleview, near Scarborough Beach, where his mother, Susan, had grown up. His parents still live in that small house, which “has an air and a smell and an aura to it that is distinctly home”.

Despite attending an Anglican school, religion did not play a significant part in his growing up. Where does he stand on the God question? “I believe in another presence; I deeply believe that there’s unknown forces at play in the world. I love thinking about quantum physics and science, because I think that is God.”

Lutton’s latest collaboration, with playwright Tom Wright, is a fictional mystery long mythologised as fact perhaps because it speaks to terror of the spiritual unknown in Australia. It’s about white schoolgirls encountering a Victorian geological wonder, seen by their headmistress as “a brooding blackness solid as a wall”, just before her head is impaled on a jutting crag.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, a work of fiction published in 1967 by Melbourne author Joan Lindsay, concerns the disappearance of schoolgirls and their mathematics mistress on Valentine’s Day 1900. The story is seared into the collective conscious, partly thanks to the ethereal musical soundtrack and period costumes of its feature film incarnation, directed by Peter Weir in 1975.

Lindsay, who died in 1984, may have been inspired by her own Anglican girls’ school, Clyde Girls’ Grammar, which she attended in East St Kilda and which later moved to Macedon. Lutton and Wright’s stage adaptation will remain true to Lindsay’s white perspective and blinkered archetypes within Mrs Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, on the Bendigo Road near Mount Macedon.

Lindsay’s satire of elitism and class is searing: mining heiress Irma is prized for her wealth, while Miranda, the only character whose hair has been set free, Botticelli-style, from repressed female sexuality, has a physical beauty conflated with moral worth and good character. “Pudgy” Edith, meanwhile, is plain and therefore irritating and stupid, and orphan Sara is deemed unworthy of education because her guardian has failed to pay her term’s dues.

In this new play – at the Malthouse Theatre from Friday and then, in April, in Perth, with the Black Swan State Theatre Company, where Lutton was once associate director – five contemporary white schoolgirls, dressed in today’s clothes, will recite the stories of the original characters. Time becomes elastic until they channel those roles and disappear themselves. Lutton will offer only the quickest flash of petticoat, and forgo the famous panpipes. It’s not the first stage adaptation: American playwright Laura Annawyn Shamas published one in 1987 for a larger ensemble, produced in Melbourne as recently as 2014 by a non-professional company.

Pointedly perhaps, Lindsay’s text, besides a passing mention of an “Abo tracker and bloody dog”, fails to name any Indigenous presence, even as her white characters marvel at the volcanic protuberance of Hanging Rock on Wurundjeri country.

Mrs Appleyard’s school is a “place of rational British thought, where poetry is drilled into your brain, and you learn decorum and restraint, and that is your weapon against the savage outside”, says Lutton. “There’s a blinkeredness in the Lindsay text about not seeing the culture, not seeing the land that exists, barricading themselves against it.”

Lutton and Wright have read Lindsay’s final chapter to the story, published posthumously in 1987, but found it reductive in attempting to explain the mystery, and therefore unsatisfying. They are ignoring its existence.

“We look at the story as a 2016 nightmare of another nightmare,” says Lutton. “There’s still a white British history we haven’t reconciled at all; there’s still the great division in our understanding of our own land.

“The population that lives on the exterior ignores the interior of our country, geographically and spiritually, and it still speaks to an Australian avoidance of conflicts that are difficult.”

Long term, Lutton wants the Malthouse to be looking more at specific national debates, pushing conversations in an entertaining rather than didactic way. “Like most artists, I’m progressive left, and someone who thinks a lot about equality, that we’re not a country of great equality.

“I think a lot about the different cultures in our country, and how they speak to each other, and what our relationship is to globalism and to capitalism as it starts to fall and become frail.”

What matters to Lutton about theatre are the collaborations and the interrogation of artists’ and audiences’ politics and ideas. “I want the experience in the theatre to be emotional and bodily,” he says, “the catharsis you go through watching a work.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2016 as "The equaliser". Subscribe here.

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