Julian Meyrick
A call for a National Theatre of Australia

Last year, an unusual event in Australian theatre took place: a sector-wide debate about the role of classic adaptations in our national repertoire. It was prompted by a string of controversial adaptations, of which the best known were perhaps by Belvoir St director Simon Stone (Wild Duck, Death of a Salesman, Strange Interlude). But the discussion was clearly about more than season programming, and had darker resonances.

For all the energy of the contemporary scene there was the matter of Australian drama and the opportunities being offered – or not – to Australian playwrights. A right old barney ensued, which gave off much heat but little light. It was followed by those interested in theatre, but also by those interested in Australian culture generally, as the issue opened onto larger territory. It was a small hook that snagged a big, disquieting fish.

My recent Currency House Platform Paper, “The Retreat of Our National Drama”, is an attempt to set the adaptations debate in a broader context. I consider four kinds of evidence: repertoire statistics – though warning against over-reliance on figures, given the unreliability of existing datasets –history, dramaturgical analysis and personal testimony.

The most crucial is the historical record. In brief, Australian theatre can be said to possess a dual cultural legacy and a divided professional soul. The first arises from the fact that we were once a British settlement colony, looking to Europe for our cultural consciousness as well as to our own local efforts. Our divided professional soul reflects the ongoing influence of the success of commercial theatre entrepreneur J.C. Williamson in creating in the 19th century an industry entirely reliant on imported product. My research follows this narrative through several twists to identify where there has been an “equal conversation” between our two legacies, and where it has broken down. At key moments the relationship between Australian theatre’s production intelligence and its dramatic imagination – its ability to stage plays and its own national drama – hasn’t been successful.

You can read these types of evidence into each other. Whatever scrutiny the quantitative analysis is subject to, it won’t change three important and anecdotally plausible trends: the fact that we don’t revive Australian classic drama very much, the fact that we stage only a restricted part of the classical canon, and the fact that we are not regularly promoting younger Australian playwrights into the mainstream repertoire.

I consider only nine state and second-tier theatres. You can argue these companies are not the epicentre of new Australian drama. You can argue playwrights are no longer the primary expression of our dramatic imagination. You can say that written drama is not the sine qua non of Australian theatre. You can have different views about these things, but you have to acknowledge the historical flow of traffic – Australian drama has more often than not been a problem for Australian theatre, which was founded on an expectation of assured success that Williamson made the touchstone of professionalism.

The third and fourth types of evidence aim to show why producing new drama is such bloody hard work. Too much is made of the role of individual talent and not enough of collective industrial effort. If the culture of new play development isn’t there, it is hard for even our best and brightest to make a sustained contribution.

You can read the figures into this, too. When the number of new playwrights falls below a certain level, the pressure on those who are supported becomes intense. The hardest thing to manage in theatre is expectations. If there is too great a gap between what is expected from Australian writers and what they can realistically achieve, the relationship between the repertoire and new drama deteriorates. It may feel that the harder one tries, the less satisfactory are the results. Even when the results are positive, the risks remain significant and scary.

In the end, the health of Australian drama is not the responsibility of any one company but must be shared across a range of institutions and production opportunities. I do not criticise existing seasons, much less individual shows, and it would be wrong to think I am censuring the industry’s current achievements. The high profile of classic adaptations in the mainstream is not pernicious. What is there is fine. It’s what is left out that concerns me.

That is why I propose the establishment of a National Theatre of Australia, along the lines of the National Theatre of Scotland: a co-commissioning, co-developing, non-building-based body that would feed into the existing company network and identify gaps in the repertoire to address using new partnership models. In this way, we could strengthen our collective handling of new drama and the revival of our own classic plays.

Australian theatre now stands in the flood of our nation’s rapidly developing maturity, and a healthy national drama is core to that maturity. It is not my intention to beat people over the head with nationalist views. But I want to flush fundamental problems into the open – to talk frankly about Australian theatre’s unique past and beckoning future as it stands, once again, on the cusp of powerful change.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Dramatic tension".

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Julian Meyrick is professor of creative arts at Flinders University.