Playwright Patricia Cornelius takes centre stage
When Patricia Cornelius’s work premiered at the Melbourne Theatre Company, her characters strutted onstage in a flurry of expletives. The opening monologue featured an impressive 27 “fucks”, used variously as a verb, adjective, exclamation and emphasis. The play was titled Shit.
Shit foregrounded a female underclass, but these women sure didn’t want the audience’s sympathy. “There’s not a single moment when the three young women transcend their ugliness,” Cornelius writes in the stage directions. “They love no one and no one loves them. They believe the world is shit, that their lives are shit, that they are shit.”
Presented as part of the 2015 NEON festival, which allowed independent theatremakers to present work in MTC’s subsidiary Lawler theatre, Shit seemed to be a two-fingered salute to an Australian main stage that had been actively ignoring Cornelius for decades. The playwright cackles as she imitates MTC patrons calling the box office. “Can I have two tickets to S-H-I-T?” she says, whispering the blasphemous letters with toffy affectation.
Then aged 63, Cornelius had written more than 25 plays and won every major playwriting award in the country, some several times over. Yet her work had never graced the stages of a state theatre company. Shit’s sellout season turned Cornelius into an unwitting mouthpiece for the shortcomings of these companies, with a rash of articles citing her disavowal as indicative of a male-dominated art form, fearful of new Australian writing, with risk-averse programming catering to conservative subscribers.
Cornelius’s work had “become the collateral damage in a war between economics and art”, wrote Wesley Enoch. When Enoch became artistic director of the Sydney Festival in 2017, he put his money where his mouth was and remounted Shit centre stage. Along with an event titled “Who’s Afraid of Patricia Cornelius?”, he programmed readings of her early plays Love and Slut, both challenging works where intimacy equals exploitation and women are told they bring desecration on themselves.
To MTC’s credit, they’ve now heeded these calls to arms. Cornelius is one of seven writers who’ve been invited into the institution for the inaugural Next Stage Writers’ Program, ranging from stalwart thespians such as Joanna Murray-Smith to new voices such as Indigenous author and poet Ellen van Neerven. This month, the first of Cornelius’s two commissions, an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, will finally see her work on the theatre’s main stage.
Just don’t presume the outspoken playwright will start mincing words any time soon. “I don’t give a shit about those companies,” she says. “If they want to use me they can – and they are, at the moment – but I don’t feel beholden to them. It sounds so hifalutin, but my ambition was really just to be able to create great work … that I felt soared. It never entered my mind that it would happen in the mainstream.”
When I slip into the rehearsal room at the MTC, veteran actor Sue Jones is wielding a feather duster that’s standing in for a toilet brush. Jones is playing the mad grandmother, Maria, her grey curls restrained in a toilet paper bow, who’s currently proclaiming she’ll make a beautiful bride.
“Be more disgusted,” director Leticia Cáceres tells Maria’s grandchildren Marti, Magda, Angela and Adele – played by Candy Bowers, Bessie Holland, Peta Brady and Emily Milledge – as they retreat into a corner. “She’s waving a shitty toilet brush!”
It’s not immediately clear how The House of Bernarda Alba fits into Cornelius’s wheelhouse. The wealthy landowners of Lorca’s last play, the final instalment of his “rural trilogy”, are a world away from the types with whom Cornelius usually fraternises onstage. Lorca’s exploration of female repression and class prejudice is familiar territory, however, with an unforgettable matriarch, played here by Melita Jurišić, locking her daughters away from a forbidding milieu.
Early in rehearsals, the set is just stage-wide slatted doors. In this house, there is a clear division between insiders and outsiders, between glossy surfaces and subterranean secrets. Various sketches and photos pinned to the walls give hints of the design: outback manor homes straight out of Wake in Fright (1971), heat shimmering off their tin roofs; bug zappers glowing deadly; prim dresses for an all-female cast.
Moving the setting from a Spanish village to an unspecified back of beyond, this tyrannical family unit is disturbingly at home in contemporary Australia. Cornelius compares their terror and silence with our colonial inheritances, even reading mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s biography for inspiration.
“What, you think we live in a generous, lovely country? With lovely people who care for everybody else? Fucking hell, we are shitful … I love the fact that we’re so rotten. I’ve got lots to write about.”
Cornelius’s home in Thornbury is cosy and welcoming. There is a vegetable patch in the front yard soaking up the last of the autumn sun. She’s been here for years, she says, before the rapid gentrification began.
Much like her characters, Cornelius takes great pleasure in profanity. When she swears she curls her mouth to the side and draws out her vowels to accentuate the strine, ever so subtly performing a rougher sort. She’s an animated storyteller, laughs as though she means it, is refreshingly unapologetic.
“You get to an age … where always being apologetic about oneself is very unbecoming. You think, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, you’ve been doing it for years. You got a prize, you know, someone gave you a really ugly statue. Don’t always be going, ‘I’m not good enough.’ ”
The playwright’s sensibility was forged in Melbourne’s independent sector. Looking through the archives in the State Library of Victoria, I come across a script for an early work, Lilly and May, performed in 1987 with long-time collaborator Susie Dee at Playbox Theatre, now the Malthouse, replete with headshots of a baby-faced Cornelius, who was then still an “actor who writes a bit”.
That year she also became a founding member of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, which she calls her “apprenticeship”. Funded by a government initiative to democratise the arts, the collective would write and stage plays in locations such as building sites and factory mess halls. Although the company folded in 2012, Cornelius’s writing retains a strong focus on class identity, often holding up a mirror to our ghastlier side.
She wasn’t stirred to write about Guantanamo detainee David Hicks in The Call until she found out he was a “chicken plucker” back home. The disquieting Savages follows a group of working-class men who are determined to have “the trip of a lifetime”, loosely based on the case of Dianne Brimble, who was given a date-rape drug and died of the effects of alcohol and drugs onboard a P&O cruise in 2002.
The outlier perhaps is Do Not Go Gentle, which still showed a playwright at the peak of her powers. Surreal yet mundane, it juxtaposes Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition with five nursing home-bound geriatrics approaching that good night. The play won or was nominated for every major playwriting award, yet every mainstage company passed. Director Julian Meyrick eventually settled for the humble independent theatre fortyfivedownstairs.
“I don’t want to sound too sooky la la, but I did feel a real grief,” says Cornelius. “Of all the plays – even though it’s quite hard-hitting – I think it’s asking a fundamental, terrifying question: At the end of our lives, is this it? Is this all there is? To get to the end of your life and be asking this question, I could tear up, because of the misery of that. Is this all life offers us?
“Now I hope they don’t pick it up in my lifetime, because I’ll have nothing to bitch about.”
Back in the rehearsal room, The House of Bernarda Alba is emerging as pure Cornelius.
In the following scene, the elder sisters gossip about a local girl Rosie’s “latest antics”, a cautionary tale that the youngest, Adele, is desperate to understand. Milledge tries on different laughs: in one incarnation Adele awkwardly titters, imitating her sisters; in the next, she throws her head back in a manic chortle, masking her bemusement.
Despite maid Penelope’s (Julie Forsyth) protests, the sisters insist Rosie threw herself into the back of the truck, tore off her own dress, and called for the pack of miners to come get her. “She loves it,” they spit. “Shameless, she is.” Unconsciously, Bowers, Brady and Holland begin circling Milledge, physically ensnaring her in the horrific tale.
At one point, Bowers stops the scene to question why they’re relaying this violent anecdote with such glee: “I’m just trying to understand my character’s motivation, because it’s the opposite of what I think.”
With Cornelius, actor and audience are never allowed to relax. Her words get under your skin, test your allegiances, encourage your pity before throwing it back in your face. Her language is propulsive, its playful rhymes and quickening pace tightening like a noose.
“The work has to have a life force, and a life force sometimes means that it will bother you, that it will make you reconsider things … kind of threaten you,” Cornelius explains. “How delightful to be threatened, when the world is so fucking threatening.”
“I have heard talk that writers have one story to tell and they tell it over and over again in various guises,” writes Cornelius in the introduction to Love. “If that’s true then mine is a story of survival.”
Cornelius says she’s still attached to the theme, an inheritance from her father who was a prisoner of war at Changi and worked on the Thai–Burma railway. He was among the survivors of the Rakuyō Maru, a ship carrying POWs to Japan that was sunk by an American torpedo. Those who didn’t drown spent days floating on debris rafts, covered in oil. When they were rescued, the severely malnourished men were also suffering from diseases such as malaria and dysentery.
“He had been greatly damaged by it,” she explains. “And so the family dealt with a man who wasn’t really looked after, as many returned soldiers weren’t.”
The youngest of five children, Cornelius spent her childhood in the affluent Melbourne suburb of Brighton. “There were poor people in Brighton, too, you know …It was in an odd setting, where mostly people are quite comfortable in a nice street and then we were living a lie. I was ashamed most of the time, frightened of people knowing about how uncertain it was.”
If Cornelius’s 2002 novel My Sister Jill, about a family with many biographical similarities to her own, is any indication, it must’ve been a volatile and precarious way to live. Fictional father Jack alters the house’s chemistry, with each sibling doing whatever they can to evade his casual cruelties, erratic rules and outright rages. And yet the children can’t help but swell with pride when their father, drunk and maudlin, recounts his bravery – even when their everyday existence is a struggle to endure.
“I have to say, I’ve written about him a lot. He offered me great resources,” Cornelius says with ample sarcasm. “The research! Absolutely endless!”
Still, Cornelius insists she came to theatre accidentally, falling in love with acting when she was supposed to be studying education in the Whitlam years.
“As cliché as it sounds, you could reimagine oneself. To be able to investigate how others felt, or how others might hold themselves. To be reinvented was quite therapeutic, really, but also just wondrous and imaginative. It asked of me something that I’d never been asked … It’d always been trapped inside my head, rather than been able to find an expression anywhere.”
Her face takes on a new softness when she recalls that first blush of artistic communion. “It was truly gorgeous.”
In the rehearsal room, I glimpse what Cornelius is addicted to. These women ricochet off one another, the clashing and merging of their energies positively electric. Words already so charged leap into new life each time they’re spoken.
“Despite all its stodginess, when theatre works it’s so utterly, overwhelmingly surprising, and mostly because it’s in the flesh … It’s a living, growing thing … To be able to see it evolve in a way that it can’t in any other form, it’s just a delight.”
What we’re witnessing growing in this room isn’t beautiful, though. In fact, it’s downright unsettling. Cornelius reflects back at us an ugly and rapacious world that we know too well.
Despite these horrors, Cornelius grants even her most hopeless characters respite in their shared capacity to yearn. That painfully human longing is what unites the downtrodden women of Shit, the men of Savages who see “fun” as their birthright, the wealthy Alba sisters trapped in a wasteland surrounded by ravenous men.
“You want something more than this, and you don’t quite know what it is,” Cornelius says. She shrugs her shoulders, eyes twinkling. “Just more. More, please.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "House of pain". Subscribe here.