Rowbotham Goes Walkabout

“Sometimes it's not the play itself but the interludes outside the auditorium which provide the main source of entertainment - or escape” -  as former theatre critic David Rowbotham reminisced in this article he wrote for The Brisbane Review (1992) of his time spent reviewing La Boite productions between 1970 and 1987.

Once upon a time in the foyer of La Boite, a lady in a voluminous caftan - when caftans were fashionable theatre-wear, thinking I would not come back after seeing me leave at interval, stage-whispered: "The bastard's left."

She had a vested interest - friends in the show. I doubt she saw me return, and my heart went out to her in her moment of angst. The theatre's air-conditioning was chilly, and I had simply slipped out to get my cardigan from the car.

Often I found the intervals more interesting than the shows. Some people quaffing orange-drinks - that favourite foyer liquor - used to ask me what I thought of the show, and I would gaze inward as if envisaging hemlock in the orange. Outwardly, I would doff my demeanour of inscrutability to smile and say: "Only the keyboard will tell me."

This would invariably invite the sort of look that could kill with geniality. The unspoken reflection was: "Here's a mut who's too clever by half." But what I said was nothing but the truth.

At intervals I let my mind go walkabout while I stood as still as a termite condominium, trying to hide my blowing smoke as if I had no cigarette, and pretending I was not watching those who watched me.

Not until back at the office as I sat poised above the keyboard, like a praying mantis, was the mind sooled by the keyboard itself into rip-roaring action, fuelled by the mind's substratum - the thing that counts in theatre. I seldom took notes in the dark; after ages viewing stages the mind's substratum is the thing to trust. Besides, there was the deadline.

I miss the audiences of old and I apologise to them for blowing smoke: the stuff settled in my hair, on my suit, and didn't exactly sweeten my breath. Non-smokers in my vicinity inside the theatre must have known the meaning of environment long before smokestacks and nuclear silos multiplied on the earth.

One of my discomforts whenever I went to La Boite was being afraid to rest my feet on the seat in front of me. The room between rows in that precipitous theatre is almost as narrow as roof-spouting. Should, therefore, one's shoes happen to be a trifle "off" due to wretched humidity, the tip of a shoe tentatively resting on the seat in front (to prevent the leg breaking) would certainly be off- putting to that seat's occupant.

The mere thought of this discomfited me. Habitually I left La Boite by descending the steep aisle as if, first, I had fallen down it and broken both limbs. Architecturally, La Boite isn't the best of places. Artistically it has been the scene of triumphs.

I have not forgotten its presentation of Jack Hibberd's surrealistic A Stretch of the Imagination, with Barry Otto in the solo role that was to determine his theatrical future. He would go interstate - most artists with special talent and nous (in any field) went interstate and even overseas.

No matter what inducements, now by way of a wasteful Arts Department, are offered to the best artists to stay in this State, they will still leave as leave they must. Some have stayed, but most have paid the price of being nationally discounted. Only the writers can take the world as their oyster by publishing (to begin with) here; they, as David Malouf and Peter Carey did, must aim for London and New York. It is no use being insular; that's not what the arts are about. Ask the artists of other lands.

My own work, plenty of it about Queensland, has been published in the UK, USA and Australia, and has been translated abroad and appears in international anthologies. I am still invited by overseas centres to talk about my work. I mention this not out of vanity (no poet can afford to be vain), but to stress that the artist best serves his or her land by breaking and entering-others!

I have not forgotten Brisbane's John Bradley with his wild, wise and wily play, Irish Stew, produced at La Boite and subsequently published. It deserves re-production. I have not forgotten the plays of Brisbane's Jill Shearer, also published, and one of which was recently taken to Broadway where it was mauled by chauvinistic critics. But, to report her own words, the philosophic Miss Shearer has said with amusing nicety: "Like General MacArthur, I shall return." Meanwhile, the lady is remembered in New York as an alien who dared to challenge it.

I have not forgotten Brisbane's Barbara Stellmach, for so many years virtually the playwright-in-residence with the Villanova Players (which became the Taylor Street Theatre and was never the same). She was the first woman in Australia to have a collected edition of her plays published, by the University of Queensland Press. No one should forget Stellmach. Even when theatre-fancies change, the traditionally-written play survives.

No one should forget Rod Lumer, who at considerable cost to himself, maintained for years a press for the publication of the new local play which no other press would touch. Whether or not all the plays Dr Lumer collected were gems of theatre, his collection is now unique in Queensland. He acted for The Arts Theatre, but whenever he had produced a new brace of books, there he always seemed to be - at interval - flogging his wares at La Boite. I would try to act invisible, but he never failed to jump me. Playwrights owe much to him, and I owe to him some of my oddest intervals.

While speaking of La Boite, neither do I forget British Harold Pinter's sinister Homecoming, featuring Jennifer Flowers. Nor Ron Blair's The Christian Brothers with Peter Carroll in another fine solo performance. Nor Dorothy Hewett's The Chapel Perilous. Such superb pieces of theatre as these (they happened to be from interstate and overseas) were ideal for theatre-in-the round, which La Boite is.

"The bastard's left." Just sometimes. The occasions of intervals varied from theatre to theatre, from show to show. The intervals, I have already described, were where I was often, most often, asked what I thought of the show occurred at the RQTC, which should simply and rightly be called the State Theatre Company.

Our State Theatre was launched towards the end of 1969 with Brian Nason's direction of Shaffer's The Royal Hunt o f the Sun - the same Shaffer who wrote Amadeus. Its inaugural director for 10 years was Alan Edwards who directed a swag of substantially memorable shows and who  - in retirement! - now acts in plays and films.

During intervals at The Arts Theatre, I used to exit to the footpath and stare alternately into the gutter and across the city. Anything to help me through the night, while mind went walkabout.

Ah, those city views. So disenchanted once with an Ignatians musical, and musicals were their forte, I stared at their city view as an international jumbo flew over preparing to land. I reported that I liked their view better than their show. The jumbo did it. I had a sudden yen to visit overseas again and do a refresher course on theatre and attend literary and theatre conferences. I managed to do this about every two years. To travel is essential for the critic and the writer. Otherwise he or she sometimes can feel too trapped among the mediocre.

Whenever I spoke of views, preferring them to a number of shows (not many), the vibrations of the international jumbos were somewhere working their will with me. Quite a number of Brisbane theatres have beautiful views. But staring at them at intervals late at night compels the eyes to look at the sky, and the sky is the quickest pathway, via wings, to a world that has filled me with such wonder I once published an article on theatre in which I announced, with conviction, that the best theatre of all was – travel.

The Brisbane Review, 3 December 1992

Distinguished literary figure David Rowbotham (1924 – 2010) is best known for his impressive contribution to Australian poetry. He was The Courier-Mail's literary and theatre critic between1955 and 1964. In 1970 he was appointed its inaugural arts and literary editor and in 1980 its literary editor and chief theatre critic. He retired from journalism in 1987. As a theatre critic - he wrote countless La Boite reviews - he was known for his sometimes sharply worded reviews. His many articles on the arts and literature stimulated interest and growth in the arts sector in Queensland. He was awarded an Order of Australia (AM) in 1991 for services to literature and journalism and in 2007 his long artistic achievement was recognised with the Patrick White Award.

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