Late in 2013, the Griffin Theatre in Sydney revived John Romeril’s The Floating World as its annual production of an Australian classic. The play is now forty years old, and unfamiliar to contemporary audiences who would have been lucky to see its first performances in the tiny Pram Factory in 1974 or any of the handful of intervening performances of the play. By all accounts, that first production was an extraordinary experience with the audience seated on deckchairs inside a chicken wire compound shaped like a ship. That audience would have been familiar with the Australian Performing Group’s experiments and, no doubt, expected to see a play that unsettled them a little, while making a political point.
In Griffin’s even tinier Stables Theatre there was no room for chicken wire and deckchairs, nor much in the way of stage props for this play set on the 1974 Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom Cruise to Japan. The audience sat close to the stage, almost touching the performers. We were not quite able to imagine ourselves as fellow-passengers on the cruise ship, but we were close enough to share the emotional charge of the performers as the play progressed. Romeril’s work was unfamiliar to most of the audience and the shock of Les Harding’s shift from xenophobic buffoon to a suffering war victim was palpable. Many people wondered out loud how such a powerful play could have lain unperformed for so long. The production won the Sydney Theatre Awards for best direction (Sam Strong) and actor (Peter Kowitz) of 2013, though only a few thousand people could have squeezed into the Stables or the Riverside Theatre at Parramatta to see it.
Romeril was one of the most politically committed members of the Australian Performing Group, and his plays always make some kind of political point, both through subject matter and performance style. He is still committed to a ‘democratic’ theatre ideal where the production team are collaborators with the writer. Denise Varney notes that the director of the original production, Lindzee Smith, and the designer, Peter Corrigan, had worked with radical theatre groups in New York and San Francisco. Their production adopted some of Brecht’s alienation techniques to undermine audience identification with the characters in the play, by putting young actors into middle-aged parts and a woman in the waiter parts, and by shifting from realist moments to scenes of artificial theatrical excess, including songs and poetry. The theory is that this ‘anti-naturalism’ prevents the audience sympathising or identifying too much with any individual character, ensuring that they never lose sight of the fact that they are watching a performance.
In the Stables production, the audience was so close to the actors that no amount of role-sharing or caricature or vaudeville japes could distance us from the awareness that human individuals were in front of us. On the page, Irene and Les Harding may seem like cut-out stereotypes of suburban Australian vulgarity but in the Stables theatre they appeared to be people, played convincingly by Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz. Unlike the actors in the original production – Bruce Spence, who played Les, was only twenty-nine at the time – these two were about the age of the characters, striking down one of the barriers to naturalist ‘identification’. In 1974 Irene’s malapropisms may have made her a derisive figure of fun, but they have now become associated with the broad comedy of ‘Kath and Kim’, much-loved on Australian television. Les’s obscene jokes wander close to those of Les Patterson, who was invented by Barry Humphries in the year of the play’s first production. There can be no claims of mutual influence – these writers and comics were exaggerating a phenomenon that Australian audiences continue to recognise and enjoy. All of them were also working in the popular traditions of the Australian vaudeville stage; the jokes are as old as the hills (as Romeril makes clear in the play). Nevertheless, it seemed as if the 2013 audiences’ familiarity with Kath & Kim, and Les Patterson, predisposed them to like Les and Irene and to enjoy their humour.
‘By all accounts, that first production was an extraordinary experience with the audience seated on deckchairs inside a chicken wire compound shaped like a ship’
Reading the script, though, you are likely to find the exchanges between Les and Irene sexist and a little brutal. Some of the critical responses to the play see a failed marriage, counting Irene’s obtuseness as reprehensible as Les’s drunken sexism. In performance, it can be seen as the affectionate bickering of a long marriage between an ignorant but kind woman, and a more experienced and vigorous man who knows that he has missed out on the privileges given to others, such as the Englishman Robinson. We (with Irene) also discover that he has endured unspeakable suffering as a slave on the Thai–Burma railroad. As Les moves further into his war memories, his exchanges with Irene become more aggressive, moving from teasing comments to references to Irene’s ‘horrible-looking face’ or Irene’s retaliation that Les is ‘slumped over your grog like some metho drinker at the Methodist Mission’.
If Les’s jokes and jingles are mainly obscene, they do, at least, express something of his energy and suppressed anger at the postwar status quo, in which men who suffered during the war watch powerless as Australian business opportunism makes their bloody struggle with the Japanese something best forgotten. Like Sir Les Patterson, Les has a vitality that expresses a raucous refusal of authority and a resistance to respectability that he invites the audience to share. There may be a little snobbishness in our laughter at Irene’s misunderstandings, but we probably enjoy Les’s affronts to politeness.
Our discomfort comes with his apparent racism. Yet Les hardly says a racist word – it is Irene who mouths all the standard prejudices against Pakistani doctors or ‘Muslins’. Though he grumbles about travelling to Japan, he defends himself to the imaginary McLeod who accuses him of scabbing on his dead mates: ‘It’s dead and buried, all that. I mean it’s a different world we live in today.’ He makes no direct comment on the Japanese until after one of his delusional moments, when the waiter plays one of the Japanese guards of his imagination. When he calls the waiter ‘a yellow-bellied dwarf’ and a ‘dirty mongrel dingo bastard’, even Robinson understands that he is suffering some kind of breakdown.
The audience picks up early that they are experiencing the cruise through the distorted imagination of Les. We share his ‘dream’ of McLeod and hear his memories of the war, though the moment when he counts off the numbers in Japanese during the emergency drill brings a shocked realisation that he has lost the division between reality and memory. From then on, we are experiencing both Les’s interior world and the external world of the cruise ship. In the Talent Night scene both worlds come together in confusion as McLeod appears as the back half of the camel. From then on, Les’s nightmare overwhelms reality as the play moves towards his almost unbearable final monologue.
With his shifts of mood from boisterous anti-authoritarianism to drunken loutishness to quivering psychosis, Les must be one of the most difficult parts for an actor to play. But the role of the Comic is almost as difficult, as he must hold together our sense of being on a ship and participate in Les’s fantasies as the play progresses. The Comic’s jokes are wince-inducing, sinking to a bathetic level of crudity. None of them are funny, as he bullies the passengers (and the audience) with increasing belligerence. Somehow the actor must deliver his cheesy lines too fast for an audience to fully comprehend how dismal they are. He must have something of the razzmatazz of the old time vaudevillean while bringing cruelty to bear, as he is transformed into one of Les’s tormentors. He is crucial to the pace and mood of the play.
‘Like Sir Les Patterson, Les has a vitality that expresses a raucous refusal of authority and a resistance to respectability that he invites the audience to share’
From Les’s first vomit over the side of the ship all of the humour in the play seems to reference bodily functions. Early in the play Les matches Robinson’s ‘Arab piece in Cairo’ with ‘I slipped a geisha what was left of my length and she said shagging me was like making love to a bird cage’, setting the play’s uncomfortable balance between obscene wit and horror. The limericks and rhymes about penises and livers, the stage business with the pissing camel – all insist on the fallibility of the human body. On the page, it may seem relentless and unfunny but in the hands of talented actors the audience is likely to find itself laughing against its better judgement. We are being set up, though, for the barrage of images of physical collapse that make up Les’s memories of his time in the camps. Any comic aspects of bodily incontinence are overturned in a litany of disease, savagery and disgust. The audience must listen in horror as Les details the deaths and destruction of the young men who were his companions:
Beriberi. Slows you down. Swells you up. My toes stuck out like purple teats on a goat’s udder. Slosh slosh. When they saw me coming, the Nip guards’d draw a cross on the ground. You’ll be dead tomorrow. Ashita mati mati. Up your arses, you lumps of lard. The beriberi fluids sloshing round my chest cavity. Legs like purple balloons. Chest like a milk-can rattling on the back of a truck. They’d mime a man drowning. Up your arses, you lumps of lard.
Romeril delivers us a lesson in Australian history in a vernacular poetry that is rhythmic and relentless.
The Currency edition of the script presents the play in the context of Australian xenophobia, with essays on Australian nationalism, attitudes to the ‘Yellow Peril’ and the history of the Thai–Burma railway, and Katharine Brisbane’s introduction to the play as ‘a study of xenophobia’. In the 1970s, some commentators saw the play itself as xenophobic in its airing of common Australian prejudices about the generalised ‘Asian’ and its reminder of the horrors inflicted by Japanese jailers on their prisoners of war. Romeril felt the need to write an afterword protesting his liking for the Japanese, and he has reiterated this defence in his blogs for the Griffin production, noting the influence of Japanese Noh theatre on the ghost scene, and citing the play’s brief reference to the way Japanese guards were also victims of a brutal hierarchy.
Forty years on and a few financial crises later, the Japanese are no longer the focus of our economic fears and they are clearly our allies in most world affairs. Romeril visits Japan regularly, and in 1995 there was a Japanese production of the play in Japanese which toured to Melbourne. The Griffin production included the Japanese actor, Shingo Usami, playing the waiter and the Japanese guard, another step towards ‘naturalising’ the production. This had an unexpected and disturbing effect because, in the scene where the waiter becomes the Japanese tormenter, it was difficult not to wonder what Usami thought of the play.
Discussions of the 2013 production focused on its representation of post-traumatic stress disorder, marvelling at the accuracy of its portrayal of Les’s symptoms. That perspective, too, can reduce it to an easily accepted ‘message’. It is so much more than a study of Australian xenophobia or an individual’s psychiatric condition. It is an exhilarating theatrical experience, in which audiences’ sympathies and expectations are undermined as they are forced to endure, with Les Harding, his memories of dreadful suffering. We have to question our prejudices as Les Harding shows us that a man can be an objectionable and ridiculous old fart and still deserve our sympathy as the victim of inhuman torture.
The play puts complex questions about the past in front of us – how should we remember the wrongs of history, how much of it should we forget in the interests of the future? It also reminds us that war does not only exist in its moment, but leaves a lengthy trail of destruction behind it. There is no comfort in the play’s ending, no scenes of Irene lovingly ministering to her sick husband, or of other characters acknowledging his distress. Harry’s commentary tells us that Les will be consigned to Larundel, the mental asylum in Melbourne.
We are likely to leave the theatre emotionally shaken, disturbed by the shifts in our sympathies and, if we still have personal memories of World War II veterans, a little chastened. The play doesn’t resolve its various parts for us: the war and the camps happened, Australians can be vulgar morons towards foreigners, especially Asians, and a mentally ill man can be packed away out of sight.
The director of the Griffin production, Sam Strong, commented in an interview that the play was ‘way too big’ for the Stables theatre. It certainly deserves a bigger space and greater audiences, and many more productions with energetic actors, young and old, of whatever race and gender. I’d like to see it in one of the Carriageworks theatres in Sydney, where the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch worked so well a few years ago. But it should also find a place in the repertoire of the state theatre companies who produce Beckett so regularly. Romeril is our Beckett – just as poetic and tough-minded. I wonder whether he would let a production scrap the dippy birds, cut Harry’s introduction and commentary in the last scene, and maybe let Les wear a fancy dress costume that merely suggested the Second AIF – these elements of the play seem unnecessarily directive for contemporary audiences. But no one would want to lose the essential quality of this ‘unruly masterpiece’, its energy, its mix of elements, its humour and humanity, and the sheer excess of its ideas.
Hutchinson, Garrie. ‘The Floating World: Unruly Masterpiece’ (1975), in Contemporary Australian Drama: Perspectives since 1955 edited by Peter Holloway, Currency Press, 1981.
Romeril, John. The Floating World. Revised edition, Currency Press, 1982.
Romeril, John. ‘Wrong Way Go Back’, Griffin Theatre Company blog.
Varney, Denise. ‘Political Lessons of the New Wave: Romeril’s The Floating World.’ Double Dialogues, 11, 2009.
‘Inside The Floating World’, ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in The Floating World’ and ‘The Floating World with Sam Strong’. Three video interviews about the Griffin Theatre Company's production of The Floating World.