The Removalists – Leland Kean asks us to examine how much has changed. (Theatre Review)
The Removalists is currently showing at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre (surely one of the loveliest places to see a play in the world). Grab tickets here.
In some ways I think the 1970’s is a forgotten decade – perhaps more pop culture parlance than in artistic studies. Sandwiched between the popular 1960’s and the 1980’s it is a transitional time. Transitions from a prevailing misogyny to the rise of feminism, a floundering socialism giving way to a rampant capitalism, a mechanical response to the world giving way to a technological response and the sexual liberation of the 60’s gives way to sexual aggression just before the pop cultural arrival of STD’s in the 80’s.
It is also the first time the term “politically correct” appears in our contemporary cultural discourse.
David Williamson wrote The Removalists in 1971. It is a kind of old fashioned parable, that uses each character to represent a broader aspect of society. On its surface, it is a play about police brutality, domestic violence and societies ability to turn a blind eye to the horrors committed between individuals. And yet seen through the lens of many hard earned decades later, the viewer witnesses something else. Something much darker wallowing at the base of this fascinating play. The Removalists becomes a celebration of the ocker image, as Kenny (a man who feels justified to beat his wife because he made her orgasm) ultimately becomes “the victim” and the only educated person in the film, Ross becomes “the murderer”. The Removalists was celebrated at the time, and remains one of Australia’s most loved plays, because of the use of the common “Aussie” vernacular, and the experience Australians had of seeing “themselves” on the stage.
But who is the “we” Australians are seeing on the stage?
The Removalists is culturally important to Australia but it does recognize the death of the white ocker Australian male – something I like to celebrate rather than mourn, no matter how much Williamson tries to portray him as a misunderstood working class hero.This is summed up in Simmonds tirade screamed at Kenny Carter, “Self Control’s the test of manhood Carter”, Kenny being a man with no self-control. It is called “The Removalists” despite there being only one removalist. Why? Because all the people in the play and the various aspects of society they represent are “removing” the ocker male. The play is written in the language of the ocker male and it is voiced from the perspective of the ocker male – police are vicious by nature, women are hypocrites because they orgasm during sex and then get angry when they are beaten, manual labor is the ultimate gift to society, a hard days work is traded for personal responsibility and education means nothing because everything eventually is reduced to fists. This Australian male stereotype is the backbone of society and above reproach or condemnation because he is poor despite his hard days work.
This is the darkness that the brilliant TRS adaptation is able to bring to the fore, despite Williamson’s (or perhaps because of?) involvement. At its surface, it is a play about authoritarianism and control. Underneath is speaks to the dark heart of the Australian male that (arguably) still beats today, despite Williamson’s warnings of its demise. It isn’t what happens to Kenny that is the most terrifying in The Removalists, it’s the world as Kenny sees it, and the warm thrill of recognition we get as we watch it.
This is why Australians can relate so powerfully to this piece of theater, despite our possible lack of direct involvement in its subject matter, because it is based on ocker representational thinking – not facts. Kenny beat his wife so badly after he had sex with her the night before she is covered in bruises, but like Christ his sins are forgiven when he is beaten by the police. Kate’s attempts to save her sister are seen as meddling and annoying and Kenny’s proof of this is that she has cheated on her husband. The police, who have seen Fiona’s bruises, doubt her sincerity when they hear her husband can make her orgasm – this is Kenny’s defense. This is highly irrational and illogical, but that is the hysterical ocker Aussie male. Don’t think too much – just act.
There is something deeply clever in Leland Kean’s idea of putting on this play in 20013. Williamson himself agreed to a certain degree of involvement, and was relieved (I can understand why) to see Kean wanted to set the play in its original day. The play is a completely different animal today than it was in 1975, and today’s viewing is more of a statement on Australian’s relationship to theatre than it is a mirror held up to our society. It’s true that “Kenny” never died and we are dealing with him still, but he is a far more complex animal than he appeared in 1975, as are all the characters in The Removalists. Did we recognize him in 1975? Did we recognize him in ourselves in 1975?
In many ways, a viewing of The Removalists is more essential in 2013 than it was in 1975. Fortunately, The Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company have put together a stellar production that freely invites the viewer to sit back in a delightful theatre setting (The Bondi Pavilion) and mull all these conflicting and interesting ideas around. The sets and costuming of Ally Mansell and Rita Carmody successfully contextualize the play so that we recognize it as time bound. The cast are without exception excellent – and was it my imagination or did they (the cast) borrow a great deal from the 1975 film version? This added a piece of welcome nostalgia that gave the viewing another delightful edge.
One last playful note – I kept wondering all the way through this wonderful adaptation, what Patrick White would have made of The Removalists. It’s possibly something only David Williamson knows, if an opinion was ever expressed at all, because I couldn’t find a trace of a mention in the gospel according to Google. As for Williamson, he went on to write many plays that chided women for daring to usurp male “authority” (an excellent example is Dead White Males) and when I saw him at the Sydney Writers Festival a few years back, nothing had changed. Looks like Kenny isn’t dead (yet) after all.
The Removalists is currently showing at the Bondi Pavillion Theatre (surely one of the loveliest places to see a play in the world). Grab tickets here.