In Memoriam: Nick Enright

It's been easy for me to follow Toronto-based playwrights. I have an opportunity to see most of their body of work over time. However, with Australian playwrights, it has been much more difficult.

However, I've been fortunate to see three plays of Nick Enright's in production.

Daylight Saving was the first Australian play I ever saw. Tarragon produced it in 1991 and it was so witty I fell in love with it immediately. It didn't hurt that two of my favourite actors, RH Thomson and Joe Ziegler, would end up playing in it. I saw it two or three times and was always enchanted. Years later, I was in the library of the University of New South Wales and took the opportunity to re-read the script. It was just as wonderful as I remembered.

The second show I saw was Cloudstreet, when it toured to BAM in New York. It's a 5 hour plus (it had an intermission and a dinner break) adaptation of a seminal Tim Winton novel that follows two families, the Lambs and the Pickles, over a span of 2 decades. The great Neil Armfield was directing and was also giving a talk at BAM, so there was no way I was going to miss it. Even though I bought my tickets early, it still, to this day, has been the most I have ever spent on one show.

As timing would have it, the show opened three weeks after September 11th. Ground Zero was still burning while I was there, the toxic fumes in the air as I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go to Neil's talk. Even with all the craziness, it was completely worth the trip. The staging was simple and highly theatrical (my personal favourite moment was a group of single lightbulbs suspended individually over the stage to create the stars in the night sky), the script sharp and moving. And listening to Neil convinced me that he and Richard Rose have been separated at birth.

Six months later I was in rehearsals in Sydney and his new play, A Man With Five Children, was playing. To my memory, it's the first time I had seen a show with video projection - at the very least, I remember being very impressed by how the show integrated that element. I didn't feel the script was as strong as the others, but I did feel taken along on a wonderful emotional journey. I found the premise, based on Michael Apted's Up series, fascinating. (There's a great academic article on it written by David Jobling in 2005 for Australian Screen Education.)

I had hoped that the next time I went to Australia I'd have a chance to meet him at the annual Australian National Playwrights Conference, but fate never gave me a chance. After a year-long battle with cancer, Nick died on March 30, 2003. Having no idea he was sick, I was in shock after seeing the obit in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I wish I was able to read more of his work. I wonder if he came to Canada when Daylight Savings premiered. I wish more people knew his name and work. So this article is a small way to do that. Through a search of the online archives, I found two articles in the Australian that can be accessed through the library archives: one by Brendan O'Keefe called "Era captured in the Nick of our time", which talks about a conference held in 2005 on Nick's work and the plan to codify his work and teaching into a book,; and another written the same year, "Between community and the mainstream stage" by John McCallum, the resident theatre reviewer, talking about his legacy. Sadly, there's not much out there on the internet itself. I couldn't find past reviews of the shows I saw, and had to do major digging for the links in this article. It's a sad state of affairs.

And to tie into a theme I've been on recently on this blog, a quotation from Nick from his Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture in 2002 (link is the full text):
I believe we are losing sight of the value and dignity of the actor in our society, and of the importance of continuity, tradition and experience in this most ancient and essential art form...To paraphrase Hazlitt (William Hazlitt, literary critic), the actor shows us who we are, who we hope to be, and who we fear we may be. So we need to recognize that by demeaning, marginalizing, and superannuating actors, society cheats itself.
May his legacy not die out.


Jazlean said…
I just wanted to leave a note to say I read this and while I haven't had much expose to Enright am currently doing a report on him and all that I hear from people and findings that he was a remarkable man. I have seen Cloudstreet (though a 3 hour version performed by university students training to be drama teachers) and enjoyed it. It's sad how the arts isn't out there in the community, in particular where I am in Perth, WA there is very little and when such great people slip away who have made a great impact that the average person cannot see. Though there are other resources on Nick Enright (such as the book 'Nick Enright: An Actor's Playwright') and it's even harder (and I mean really hard) to find information on Justin Monjo, an ex student who adapted Cloudstreet with Enright. Anyway, just had him on the brain and wanted to leave something...
To great playwrights...
July 2 – 2002

DJ: I’m down at the Institute of Dramatic Art in Kensington and I’m talking with the writer Nick Enright. Hi Nick.
NE: G’day David.


DJ: Um, you’ve got a show that’s soon to open here at NIDA called Country Music; how long have you been working on Country Music?

NE: The students and I started improvising and kicking around ideas in September of last year and we workshopped the play for a few months and then I went away and wrote the piece and we’ve been rehearsing for two months, we open next week.

DJ: It sounds quite interesting because it’s a mix of a lot of the issues that are around in Australian society; that are around at the moment. What sort of issues are you touching on?

NE: Principally I suppose it’s the sense of what it is to be Australian now; in a country which is so divided and so full of tension and hostility really. I think like the students and like the two directors who are working on the show, I think we all feel that this is a crucial time for Australia because you have to take a position. I think it’s been true probably since the emergence of Pauline Hanson, that probably, the one positive contribution she made to the national discourse was to require all of us to define what it is that we actually believe about Australia, and I think that since the events of 2001 and now 2002 particularly in relation to border protection and refugees the whole country’s politicised and the sense of distress and concern that a lot of us feel about government policy and about the kind of country that we’ve become is probably the central idea at the heart of the play – so there is, there are four parallel stories running through the evening it’s quite a big night and it’s set in a fictional country town, one of the stories is about the detention centre which is in the town and an Iraqi man who escapes from that, and there’s an Aboriginal ghost story which underpins the whole piece which is really the sort of matrix that the rest of it sits in, and there’s a by-election a wedding, a couple of runaway teens, and uh, it’s a big night.


Copyright 2011 David Jobling.