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After a long and successful career, dramatist Joanna Murray-Smith returns to her roots with a new play opening this month at the Melbourne Theatre Company. By Peter Craven.

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith.
Credit: Supplied

Joanna Murray-Smith is indisputably one of Australia’s international theatre stars. I knew someone who compared her to the Duchesse de Guermantes in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: a figure of fugitive but irrevocable glamour.

Her résumé as a dramatist includes productions of her feminist comedy The Female of the Species in Los Angeles starring Annette Bening and in London’s West End with Eileen Atkins. When Murray-Smith’s Honour was performed at The National Theatre in London, Atkins won an Olivier award for her performance, and it was later revived for the West End with Diana Rigg in the starring role. Murray-Smith was invited to adapt Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage by famed British director Sir Trevor Nunn.

Like Scenes from a Marriage, her new play Berlin – opening next week for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) and directed by Iain Sinclair – is a two-hander. It features Grace Cummings and Michael Wahr as millennials drawing sparks from each other in a dark drama shrouded by Germany’s history.

In this play, Joanna Murray-Smith returns to the question of Jewishness that preoccupied her at the start of her career 30 years ago.

“The older you become, the closer you get to your beginnings,” she tells me. “As a writer, you begin to see that a lifetime of what you considered free will was no such thing. Those seemingly independent creative preoccupations are in fact an inheritance, usually unconscious and often unwelcome. My mother’s Jewish identity was intense emotionally but glimpsed through a scrim of Anglophilia, Communism and so on ... The Anglo life (and literature) claimed more space, but the Jewish heart was always beating, for her and, via her, for me. Going to Berlin allowed that Jewish aspect of my history to claim my imagination.”

Her first professional play, Atlanta, was not only “Jewish” but a tribute to her progressivist university friend, the director Ewa Czajor. Her father, Stephen Murray-Smith, was a famous left-wing intellectual who started wearing the yarmulke when he met his Polish-born Jewish wife, Nita, despite his establishment Melbourne background.

“My mother’s father, Israel, was Orthodox,” Murray-Smith says, “and put on the most magnificent Seders with damask tablecloths and prayers. My father always wore a yarmulke – but never outside that setting. He had a huge respect for my grandfather personally and as both a humanitarian and an historian, for Jewish life and history. His respect was no doubt encouraged by his family’s anti-Semitism.”

In his memoir Indirections her father said fascism was brought home to him by the fact that with a Jewish wife and children in Nazi Germany he would have had to face the choice of whether to accompany them to the death camps.

Another influence is Murray-Smith’s late uncle John Bluthal, who took over the role of Fagin in Oliver! in the London production and was a mainstay of The Vicar of Dibley. Does she think he impelled her towards the stage?

“I only started thinking about that recently, around the time he died,” she says. “There was always excitement in the house at his far-flung escapades as a thespian, and we adored seeing him in London. His last [major] performance was in a Coen Brothers’ movie, Hail, Caesar!, at 85 and George Clooney personally held up his cue cards! As children, we all received souvenirs in the mail, including the autographed plane menus of all The Beatles on their way to shooting Help! in the Bahamas – John was also in A Hard Day’s Night … I’m not conscious of his influence in leading me to playwriting, but it must have played a part.”

I mention the fact that I’ve just read Hermione Lee’s biography of Tom Stoppard and that Stoppard said in New York – at the time of Mike Nichols’ stage production of The Real Thing with Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons – he felt Jew-ish. Is there a parallel for her both with the -ish aspect and Stoppard’s increasing identification with his background?

“Yes, I think so,” she says. “Funnily enough, my first visit to New York triggered a similar sense of being much more Jewish than I realised, because the humour and intellectual rhythm of the city felt so familiar. I also saw that indelible production of The Real Thing on that trip. So Stoppard and I were having our Jewish epiphanies at the same time and place … Writers are mysteries to themselves, constantly trying to solve the mystery through invented characters and scenarios.”

Berlin has something of the same sense of uncanniness as Murray-Smith’s earlier play Switzerland, in which the novelist Patricia Highsmith meets a mystery man. Does Murray-Smith see any parallels?

“All successful two-handers tend to have intensity and tension, because they have to, because there is no dropping the ball for an instant,” says Murray-Smith. “And in Berlin, it all takes place over a single night, so it has the intensity of a fast and all-consuming encounter, which adds to the tension. In both plays, the conversation has to be adversarial, surprising, inconsistent and mysterious like a musical composition, because it’s just two people in a room talking. To hold the audience in its grip, the emotional thread has to be so taut and suspenseful that the barrage of words doesn’t dilute its power.”

Is she increasingly attracted to two-handers or is this just how the writing has fallen out?

“It is how it fell out, although any playwright will tell you that these days, alas, a small cast is essential to having a play produced ... I was excited to write two 20-somethings and for the purposes of my plot I needed the intensity of their encounter to be undiluted by any other characters.”

Murray-Smith learnt some German at school but doesn’t speak the language, although both her parents did. “When they wanted to say something we kids wouldn’t understand, they spoke to each other in German!”

She says of the desolation of her mother’s Polish–Jewish background: “She arrived here in 1939 at 11 years old. By the time she was a teenager, almost everyone she had ever known had been murdered.”

The subject matter is a far cry from her work with the great dames of the English stage and the Hollywood screen. Murray-Smith says of Eileen Atkins, “I adore that woman. She is everything I most admire – ferociously smart, a little bit wicked, funny, elegant and kind. She’s the greatest English actress alive, better than anyone. She says more in a moment of silence than most actors convey in an entire play.”

Of Diana Rigg: “I liked Diana very much also, although she was harder to know. She seemed imperious, but behind it, like most actors, she was incredibly vulnerable. She took me aside during the tech of Honour and begged me to tell her what she was doing wrong; painfully fragile.”

Annette Bening is a favourite Hollywood star. “I am crazy about Annette. She never puts a foot wrong in anything and she’s a sublime comedienne as well as dramatic actress … When the producer asked me yesterday who I would want to play Highsmith in a screen version of Switzerland … Well, Annette would be superb, as would Sarah Peirse, who played her on stage.”

Does Murray-Smith see herself as someone who’s always willing to risk her hand at the cost of a certain unevenness?

“Part of being an artist of any kind is keeping yourself interested, as well as everyone else. There’s a real frisson of excitement about a good but impossible idea. It’s our job to make it possible, to set that challenge and to get away with it by virtue of earning the audience’s suspension of disbelief. No one gets it right all the time and no one should ask you to, because a good artist learns through failing. Courage is art. And no human is anything but ‘uneven’ in any pursuit if they’re any good. That goes for motherhood and sex and friendship and all of those things as well. Striving is stumbling.”

I’m intrigued by her adaptation for Trevor Nunn of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, in which he had cast his wife, Imogen Stubbs. “I adore Trevor,” Murray-Smith says. “He’s the kindest, most entertaining man and has been hugely important to me as both a woman and a writer … But very soon after that production, Trevor and Imogen’s marriage came apart and I fear that the play didn’t help. It’s not the best play to work on as a married couple…

“Bergman understands intimacy like no one except Chekhov, and he wields words like a scalpel in the hands of unqualified surgeons – the cuts are chaotic, vicious, delicate, nuanced by turns. He turns marriage – and love – inside out and doesn’t let any illusions or delusions go unscrutinised. So working on it must have been hell for Trevor and Imogen.”

Murray-Smith is impressively thoughtful about the theatre. She says what you want in a director is someone who is secure in her judgements and not scared of the supposed authority of the playwright. She says directors need a “metaphysical vision” to keep everything in their heads.

She’s eloquent too about the weirdness of going back to rehearse in a space they had to abandon almost a year ago.

“Nothing happened in that room between March 2020 – when we were shut down after five days – and March 2021, when we went back in.” She says an entirely new opening to Berlin came back to her during the compulsory isolation of the Covid-19 year, as she walked along a Bass Strait beach. But she sees the experience of the plague time as a shock that has hit everybody, a bit like the aftermath of the war. “I think it’s going to take a while for people to get their humour back, or at least the lightness of being.”

There is a power in the sweeping concentration of mind Murray-Smith brings to any question that can be thrown at her. When I suggest that she obviously wants the power and glory of being a writer, she says, “Why obviously? No. Not at all. The power and glory, such as it is, sometimes comes with the territory, but that’s not what you want, it’s not what drives you, it’s an endurance not a motivator...”

She says she couldn’t believe how Covid-19 took the rug from under her feet as productions of her work closed down, a feeling intensified by the attitude of the Australian government towards the arts.

“The lack of sophistication in understanding that the arts are the foundation of our national identity is mind-blowing.”

On the other hand, there were personal gains. “As a mother and a wife – and as a writer – I loved taking refuge from the world,” she says. “I guiltily loved being home and not travelling … I loved feeling anchored to the walls of the house and finding small ways of creating a refuge for myself and my loved ones. I loved having my three children under the roof and realising that despite our best efforts to fuck them up, they came good!”

When Cate Blanchett was co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, she ensured Switzerland was produced with maximum concentration and suspense. I remember being astonished when the MTC knocked it back. There are plans to film Switzerland, with talk of Bening playing the Highsmith role played by Peirse in Australia and Laura Linney in California. It will be fascinating to see what kind of film Switzerland might make.

In the meantime, Berlin comes from the same part of her dramatic preoccupation. There are sudden swooping disclosures and moments that shock and appal. It’s a kind of dance of death for Jünglings, and my hunch is it will thrill and confound its audience. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 10, 2021 as "Blithe spirit".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.