Hotel Sorrento – Hannie Ryson and Genesian Theatre examine the Cultural Cringe. (Theatre Review)

Lynn Turnbull Rose and Rob White in a revealing conversation about what art can do for us in its cultural reflections.

Lynn Turnbull Rose and Rob White in a revealing conversation about what art can do for us in its cultural reflections.

Hotel Sorrento

Genesian Theatre

18 January through to 22 February

Buy tickets through the Genesian Theatre Website. 



“The problem with loyalty is that you can keep on and on, living a lie. And you don’t even know you’re doing it.”

Australia is not the only post-colonial country to suffer from the cultural cringe, but it is the country that led the way in its identification and recognition as a particular crises of post-colonial nations. Social commentator A.A. Phillips came up with the clever name in his 1950’s pioneering essay with the same title, a paper that has since become a cornerstone text in the understanding of post-colonial theory. As early as 1894, Henry Lawson was bitterly complaining about the cultural cringe in Australia, famously adding this quote to his preface in Short Stories in Prose and Verse:

The Australian writer, until he gets a “London hearing,” is only accepted as an imitator of some recognized English or American author; and, as soon as he shows signs of coming to the front, he is labelled “The Australian Southey,” “The Australian Burns,” or “The Australian Bret Harte,” and lately, “The Australian Kipling.” Thus no matter how original he may be, he is branded, at the very start, as a plagiarist, and by his own country, which thinks, no doubt, that it is paying him a compliment and encouraging him, while it is really doing him a cruel and an almost irreparable injury. But mark! As soon as the Southern writer goes “home” and gets some recognition in England, he is “So-and-So, the well-known Australian author whose work has attracted so much attention in London lately”; and we first hear of him by cable, even though he might have been writing at his best for ten years in Australia. 

(Colin Rodrick (ed.) Henry Lawson, Autobiographical and Other Writings 1887–1922 (Angus & Robertson, 1972) pp.108–109)

Hannie Ryson takes on the challenge of dealing with the cultural cringe.

The cultural cringe is both crucial to our understanding of ourselves as an Australian nation, and essential for us recognise and remove from our individual and collective psyche’s. To see our own world through the eyes of an artist, a person who has made it their life’s work to as perfectly as possible articulate something that is unique to their surrounds, is to stare collectively into a mirror. Paul Keating, not surprisingly, was talking of its abolition in the early 1990’s. For fans, The Australian Independent Media Network ran a Friday Flashback of Paul Keating tearing into the member for Benalong (John Howard) over the cultural cringe of the 1950’s and its very real ability to plunge Australia into “neutral, and we very gently ground to a halt in no-where land.” Besides the always entertaining banter of Paul Keating and John Hewson (don’t we miss THAT today?) what is most fascinating about the resurrection of that speech is its potential relevance today.

It was at this time, 1990 (a couple of years before the Keating speech) Hannie Rayson wrote the now famous play Hotel Sorrento, and true to the spirit of the Keating speech circulating again, the Genesian theater has decided to start their 2014 season with an examination of this important Australian play. Rayson wrote the play in response to Peter Carey’s desire to return home after Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker Prize. He’d lived in London for two years, and enjoyed his time there, was suddenly struck with a desire to be home and what he called the instant recognition of “… what people are, what they are thinking and feeling which comes effortlessly with your own kind.” (Quote taken from Shane Bates’ directors introduction) This important idea, of an artists being able to intuitively recognise and articulate details of the culture they grew up in, is emphasised in Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento when Marge (Lynn Turnbull Rose) describes writers such as Helen Garner and the fictional writer of the play Meg (Melanie Robinson) claims to see things around her with a new clarity after reading these writers books. Rayson perfectly pin points, via Marge, the reason for connecting with art from your birth country. To encase this idea in theatre, is to add in a clever meta narrative, that also describes why we need Australian theatre.

The great Aussie barbie - men outside, women in the kitchen.

The great Aussie barbie – men outside, women in the kitchen.

The Genesian Theatre brings Hotel Sorrento to a fresh Sydney stage.

Director Shane Bates has put together a fine production of this important and strikingly relevant play. The Australian cultural cringe is an essential discussion among theatre goers in Sydney, and the Genesian theatre has devised the perfect way to begin a theatre-going year. Bates provides a strong cast, who deliver their lines with wit and clarity, giving weight to the importance of each alternate perspective within the entire conversation of how Australians relate to their own art and artists, and our nervous glance toward the mirror. Hilary (Sarah Purdue), Meg and Pippa (Gemma Munro) are sisters who share the torment of harbouring  bubbling undisclosed secrets that most families deal with. Meg and Pippa have moved away from home, leaving Hilary to care for their aging father Wal (Barry Moray) with her young son Troy (the very talented Oliver Beard who also wrote the score for the show) and have built careers for themselves away from the closeness of the introspection of home. Meg has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a book she wrote about the family and the small seaside resort town of Sorrento in Victoria. After she is tossed about by responses to her success in the press, she decides to go home and face her family with her warm and generous British husband Edwin (Martin Bell, who almost steals the show).

Two part-time residents of Sorrento are Marge (Lynn Turnbull Rose who perfectly delivers some of the productions most important lines) and avid reader of Australian literature, and Dick (Rob White) a writer for a slowly dying small independent think paper distributed locally have sometimes meandering, sometimes feisty,  but always deeply lovely conversations about their own responses to the Australian culture, Australian art and Australia’s collective relationship to its own art. Dick desperately want’s to belive we have moved on, but his dwindling numbers may be saying something different. As the two different groups converge and are brought together, thrilling conversation erupts as very real people grapple with this thorny subject matter.

The Genesian theatre’s production of Hotel Sorrento is a fantastic opportunity to see an iconic Australian play in the warm setting of the lovely theater itself, but even more it is the perfect way to begin 2014, and will drive you toward a reconnection with theatre, and those special writers this country loves so much.