Up a lazy river where the robin’s song
Wakes up in the mornin’, as we roll along
Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love
Up a lazy river, how happy we will be,
Up a lazy river with me.
Savage River, the play by Steve Rodgers, ain’t got nothin’ in common with Louis Armstrong’s rendition of Lazy River. Fair enough?
Rodgers’s characters sail close to cliche: the naive teenager on the cusp of manhood, the father trying to do the right things in all the wrong ways (with the requisite inability to communicate and barely suppressed capacity for violence), the fugitive ex-stripper with a heart of gold.
I have to take issue with this.
I saw Savage River in Melbourne recently and loved it. I found the writing elegant, intelligent, and sincere; the characters truthful (having spent time in Western Tas) and clearly sketched; the performances balanced, poignant, and rich with dark humour; the design simple, effective, and thematically complex; and the direction subtle, restrained, and finely nuanced.
But the production (and what I think of it) is besides the point; what I wish to draw attention to here is the slipshod way in which the writing has been reviewed.
Clayfield’s two major criticisms are that the writing is cliched and predictable. What does it mean to say that a character is cliched?
A cliché (from the French), is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect.
To be accurate in describing a character as cliched, then, we need to be clear about a) what the character’s original meaning was, and, b) how, through overuse, that meaning has been lost.
Clayfield’s description of the characters in Savage River does not demonstrate that they are cliched, merely that they are based on generic types. This is only halfway towards a valid criticism. Telling us a script employs types is no different to telling us that it is written in English or that it obeys the rules of grammar. All forms of expression are inherited, recycled and redeployed, artistic expression included.
Is Shakespeare’s crippled monster Richard III any less enjoyable because we know that he is built upon a thoroughly mined tradition of Elizabethan villains?
As Edgar Allan Poe was fond of saying, The truest and surest test of originality is the manner of handling a hackneyed subject.
And, to my mind, Savage River achieves a great deal with what is surely a hackneyed subject: the Australian bucolic. (Though I challenge anyone to find a subject that is not hackneyed in our media-saturated modern world).
I think, to be honest, what’s at the heart of all this (and it’s not just Clayfield, I’ve read a host of similar reviews and opinions) is our growing cultural boredom with politically motivated realism. It’s perceived as formally uninventive, stylistically dull, tainted by didacticism, and worst of all, it’s old and so can’t possibly be fashionable. Perhaps the argument could be summed up as follows: if you’ve read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, seen Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker, waded through a few recent Aussie history books (Van Diemen’s Land, The Colony) or sat through The Man from Mukinupin, then perhaps you’re entitled to take a break from the legacy of Australian colonial guilt.
But isn’t this sort of thinking, at day’s end, fundamentally conservative? What about the theatre-goer sitting next to you who still thinks Australian history is 99% comprised of bushrangers, explorers and the Gold Rush?
Is it that we are embarrassed by our Australianess? Or is simply it that having something to say is embarrassing?
For my money, Savage River was a play that dealt with complex, nagging historical issues in a subtle and compelling fashion. Not everything on the stage has ape post-theatre German or In-ya-face British theatre to be of value, does it? What could possibly be more valuable to us than shedding new light on the lives of ordinary Australians? Would it be any better, for example, to program another play set in an inner-city apartment, at a dinner party, with a host of middle-to-upper class characters who talk, act and look exactly like us?
Are there any other playwrights out there – other than Steve Rodgers – who have written a monologue on the art of mutton-birding?
Too many well-deserving productions are currently being canned, in the mainstream press, because of critical whimsy. Savage River was a wonderful piece of new Australian writing and should have been celebrated as such.