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Patricia Cornelius on Australian Stage Online

An article about Patricia Cornelius and her upcoming play Do not go gentle… from Australian Stage Online, written by Trevar Alan Chilver.  See it in it’s original context here.

Dreams, Visions and Constipated Old Farts

Images of an ageing Ghandi flit through my mind occasionally. They’re a cliché for political activism, akin to the image of Martin Luther King Junior’s infamous proclamation, “I have a dream”. These are epic images, and Ghandi’s in particular speaks of a life well-lived, and spent on something worthwhile. For the rest of us, our dreams – whether they’re as big as Ghandi’s or not – have a very tenuous relationship with the realities of our lives, but paradoxically these same dreams are usually the driving force in what an individual manages to achieve.

Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs is exploring the relationship between the reality we experience and the greatness we aspire to in Patricia Cornelius’ new play, Do Not Go Gentle. Juxtaposing the story of Robert Scott’s fatal journey to the South Pole with the lives of six vibrant and opinionated older Australians, Do Not Go Gentle is described by Cornelius as a survival story, with the story of Scott’s expedition serving as a metaphor for living courageously in old age, as Dylan Thomas urged his father to do in his poem and from which Cornelius’ play takes its name, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

It is, perhaps, fateful that Dylan Thomas wrote this poem near the end of his short life. The poem calls for a renewed vigour from the ageing, but its rather radical notion – behoving his dying father to “rage against the dying of the light” – sits quite paradoxically within the poem’s very rigid structure. The structure itself is nonetheless critical to its purpose, which is to express the sombreness of experiencing a father’s death and argue that death, and by extension old age, should not be merely accepted as a stage of life, but contested.

In Do not go gentle…, Cornelius has sought to express a similar notion. She wanted to explore the theme of ageing, but with characters whose intention was to battle its realities in much the way that Thomas urged his father to do as he lay dying. In traversing the metaphor of Scott’s treacherous Antarctic terrain, the characters face the rather more rigid realities of constipation, arthritis and impending death without a sense of having accomplished enough; grappling with the dying of the light as Thomas described. This is why theatre is essential; this exploration of stories that we otherwise have no point of access to, and which, as a film, would be so prosaic as to stifle the very notion they’re searching to express. As Cornelius puts it, “theatre is raw, and some try to make it so polished that you lose the ability to see the sweat on an actor’s face, they try to stop them from grappling with anything”.

Although fortyfivedownstairs’ production of Do not go gentle… is a premiere, it begins its stage life with a host of awards. The script won Cornelius the 2006 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award, as well as the R.E. Ross Trust Playwrights’ Script Development Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Award. Talking to its author, however, rather than a sense of pride which may legitimately flow from such accolades, I am surprised to hear in her conversation a note of awe in the play as its own entity. Her humility is effortless; it’s almost as if the play is its own being, and only needed her as a playwright to coax it into being, rather than create it.
With half a laugh, Cornelius describes herself as a control freak. Rather paradoxically, she then describes with enthusiasm the quality of collaboration she has shared with director Julian Meyrick and the cast led by Rhys McConnochie on the production of Do not go gentle…; “I’ve always been interested in making theatre from an imaginative base, and making theatre with others, kind of more grass-roots”. I am convinced that I’m most certainly not talking to a control freak, but a playwright with a great personal investment in her work, who will collaborate for the benefit of the work, while maintaining her authority over the script. This is particularly interesting in the context of Do not go gentle…, which, although it might on one level be a play about ageing, is largely about our authority over our own lives.

Talking about her search for a way to explore this point in life where a person feels his life is behind him, Cornelius describes a moment of brilliance where she came up with the notion of juxtaposing this potentially euthanising theme of ageing with the heroism of Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, turning the exploration of lives in decline into the exploration of lives well-lived. Rather than centring on a last hurrah, or an attempt to hold on to an elusive youthfulness, it’s about staying in charge of your own life and making decisions, even in the face of something as crippling as dementia. I don’t have to be old to understand that, just as Dylan Thomas didn’t feel he needed to have experienced the close of life to admonish his father to “rage against the dying of the light”.

It is common to assume that stories about the old won’t appeal to the young. We have this strange tendency to think about youth as being the point at which dreams are pursued and heroes made, but it’s hardly accurate. Young adults are largely afraid of failure and intimidated by the success of their elders; while those in the last few decades of their lives often have a stronger sense of purpose, fewer inhibitions and a more keenly developed instinct for finding pleasure. Children detect this. Most children adore their grandparents; they have a tendency to view them as heroes, which contrasts starkly with their attitudes toward their workaday parents. And whether this is innate or we figure it out, we mostly seem to shift from this sense of wonder about our grandparents as children to find that as adults, we merely respect them.

We don’t seem to have any such problem with older actors, though. The saying goes that old actors never die, they just drop a part – I think it’s rather more accurate to say that those who continue in the profession take on a somewhat larger-than-life persona, becoming as familiar and comforting as a grandparent. Rhys McConnochie may not be quite old enough to fit this category of performer, but his character, suffering from dementia and believing himself to be Robert Scott on the last leg of his fatal journey, appeals on much more than a humorous level. He appeals as a kind of hero, probably not archetypal, but therefore even more inspiring, and accessible because he can stand in a place where the realities of life and the dreams we aspire to can coexist.

Do not go gentle… by Patricia Cornelius opens August 6, 2010 at fortyfivedownstairs

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