The documentary-maker’s task, if I’m not mistaken, is to provide a narrative to real life events. The art and the skill in doing this is derived from the fact that life doesn’t generally run in neat linear patterns nor lend itself readily to nicely rounded stories. It’s hard to pack everything in and make sense of it. But, without the narrative, we story-driven mammals struggle to follow. For all its upside, “Raising the Curtain” fails to hit this basic documentary mark.

From the tentative first steps with the staging of George Farquhar’s titillating“The Recruiting Officer” somewhere on the shores around Botany Bay to worldwide hits like “The Boy from Oz”, Australia’s theatre history is worth the telling. The development of the staged arts have tracked a compelling path running parallel to broader historical trends like the growing distance from Britain and the awakening of a distinct Australian culture.

Part 1 of this three-part series aired on SBS’s Studio channel in November 2012 conveys the heavy hand of colonial paranoia and its impact on the creativity of the arts in the burgeoning antipodes. For plays to have any chance of being staged in this time, content had to be, by law, devoid of local references. “The Bushranger”, generally considered to be the first locally-written play was banned for its fruity local commentaries. It was only premiered in Australia in 1971. One wonders when this law was over-turned and whether it might have been worth delving further into this moment in history highlighting a seminal shift in Australian cultural history.

Similarly links between local nineteenth century playwrights like Louis Essen and the Irish nationalist W.B.Yeats, touched on only lightly here, is also perhaps worthy of more time.

The second and third parts spend more time running through what might roughly be considered the post-colonial era. Depression stresses and the registration of the now defunct Australian communist party in the 19020’s and 1930’s inspired a raft of radical women playwrights like Betty Roland and Katherine Sussanah Prichard as well as, a little later, Mona Brand.

These women developed a more strident voice and this was given greater volume through the 60’s and 70’s and shaped into vernacular Australian forms with the emergence of Ray Lawler, Louis Nowra, Patrick White, Sumner Locke Elliot, Alex Buzo, Jack Hibbert, David Williamson and Dorothy Hewitt. Indigenous voices were beginning to be heard with the output of Jack Davis and Kevin Gilbert.

And then, there was Edna, whom we are told popped up out of Barry Humphries’ mind in response to calls to Australia’s housewives to make spare rooms available for the Melbourne Olympics and was actually designed to be played by the actress Zoe Caldwell. Ray Lawler’s advice to Humphries to do it himself made theatre history.

The theme of a vernacular testing its voice and trying to sound confident is returned to constantly and is perhaps overdone. This thematic approach undermines “Raising the Curtain” which might have been served better by a more disciplined chronological run out. As it is, years get a little confused, eras lack clarity and the many talking heads lose some contextual value. The breaking up of each episode into short often confusingly titled sub-chapters – sometimes just a few minutes in length – becomes frustrating.

Clearly, most Australians have limited exposure to quality theatre. With only 15 major companies in the country – only one theatre house for every 1.5 million Australians – its seems its value is under-appreciated. Recently, the Sydney Theatre Company announced a new $20 ticket option to attract punters with shallower pockets than usual. Commendable, but only five out the eleven-play season in 2013 for the STC are Australian. Genet, Shaw, Stoppard, Beckett and others, and the token Shakespeare, rather clog the system.

Who knows what balance is right and the STC, the country’s highest profile theatre company, may consider it has got it right. But, if “Raising the Curtain” tells us anything, it’s that local, landmark plays are not produced enough. Much of the archival footage for this doco seems to come from filmed versions of the ground-breaking works. Presumably the ABC has these on file and, if so, a season of important Australian plays in prime viewing slots might do more than cheap tickets to generate interest in this underplayed art form.

THE SKINNY

Title – Raising the Curtain

Makers – Essential Media and Entertainment

How to catch it – DVD

Couch Time – 3 x 54 Mins.

High Point – A great primer on Australian theatre

Low Point – Messy and choppy narrative

Extras – No

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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