Lisa chats with Justin Fleming, author of His Mothers Voice. (Theatre Interview)
His Mothers Voice – grab tickets here.
My very wonderful conversation with Justin Fleming is one of the beautiful things that happened to me in the early days of April that was “delayed” by “life” getting in the path of my blogging and the virtual world that we all know is the really real anyway. (cheeky grin) So I have reproduced it below, because (as far as I am concerned) Justin and I clicked immediately, and we had a wonderful skype chat a few weeks back when he was preparing to come to Australia and catch the opening night of His Mothers Voice, and its inaugural season.
His Mothers Voice is on for another four nights as of this interview going live, and I heartily encourage everyone to attend if you get the chance. My review is here, but it is worth seeing the special relationship between director and writer that converts an enormous topic and the beauty of two very different worlds into the size of a theatre stage with no loss of vibrancy and passion for culture. His Mothers Voice is a semi-fictional work steeped in a love of creative beauty and every word of that passion comes alive on the stage. But relevant to this moment, I managed to speak with Justin Fleming a few weeks back, about His Mothers Voice, and this is what he had to say:
Initially, I asked Justin about His Mothers Voice and the writing of it, but pretty soon we got to gabbing about the subversive nature of art…
Lisa: Are you looking forward to seeing His Mothers Voice being performed, because this is the debut for this play isn’t it?
Justin: It hasn’t been performed before, that’s right. It’s had a couple of very good workshops. One at Riverside Parramatta by Wayne Harrison and the other at Parnassus Den by Chris Hurrell. Both of them revealed that theatrically there is a life in this story. So I am very much looking forward to it being performed.
Lisa: Justin, in your own words, can you tell us what His Mothers Voice is about?
Justin: Yes, of course. In the middle of the 1960’s for ten years until the middle of the 1970’s, China had conducted what was called a ‘cultural revolution’. And as you would know, Lisa, it was a bizarre idea or ideology, but all of a sudden, the piano was seen as a very Western influence. And it was banned.
Lisa: Do you mind Justin… can I interrupt and ask you about that? What power is the piano seen to have?
Justin: I think because so many of the states had such prestigious prizes for their competitions, and they were always playing Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Bartok, and so it was seen as not being Chinese music, but an instrument of Western music; they thought that the Chinese musicians were regarding Western music as superior. So all of a sudden, they’re banned.
I heard a story in the 80’s during the Sydney international piano competition, and although the name has escaped me (no Google back then of course) but I did hear an interview with a young Chinese man from the mainland who said that his mother, during that period, painted a keyboard onto the kitchen table, and as a little boy he would touch the notes and she would sing them. In the play she originally taught music at the Shanghai Conservatorium of music. After the ban when people would come to their home, even friends and neighbors, they would cover the painted piano with a tablecloth.
When they lifted the ban, around the middle of the 70s, he could come out as a pianist, he could go to the Shanghai Conservatorium of music and he became a very brilliant pianist. In my story, I’ve lifted what happened to a number of pianists subsequently, that is that they defected to the West at the easiest opportunity, sometimes while giving concerts here. Because of the oppressive nature of China as the West perceived it, they didn’t have much trouble getting asylum. And so that’s the story, except that in my play, he also meets an Australian diplomats daughter in Shanghai, falls in love with her and they are married.
Then true to other tales at the time, China seeks the return of these people who defected to the West and perform at home. In other words, they wanted to heal this embarrassing rift and bring them back. But the trouble is that in this case, as in so many real cases, it is a big ask, because his father was killed by red guards for having music in the house. When I was researching this play, I looked up Piano politics in China and there were books written about this subject, so I got my hands on them and read dazzling detail about the treatment of musicians in China during the Cultural revolution. Men and women, conductors, pianists, music teachers, and the vilification, and punishment of them. They were sent out to the mines, they were sent to work in fields, they had to clean toilets, anything but music.
But you see they weren’t alone in having bad policy. We had the White Australia policy at the time, and it wasn’t until we got rid of that ridiculous policy that we were able to bring in Chinese refugees to Australia. So China is not alone, we had our own versions of these problems. And that is the scope, as well as this heroic woman at the centre of it, with all her courage and the love and the greatness of the gift to her son that’s really the pulsing heart of the play.
Lisa: It also seems, just listening to you talking… it makes me think about the power of art. It’s so regularly refused in our day-to-day. You know, we’re always talking about how books are being put down in favour of bad television, good films are replaced with mass-produced CGI heavy blockbusters, no one goes to theatre anymore, blah blah blah … that’s the prevailing conversation, at least in this country… and as you well know… we’ve now decided to go really right-wing, so art is even more devalued in terms of its influence, its necessity and all of these things. And yet, when it comes to the State, its one of the most feared practices by everyone, not just the Chinese, by all governments. They’re all terrified of this art that we constantly claim is virtually meaningless. And then at the same time, you look at the relationship between this mother and child and how she will risk her life, just to make sure he has access to fulfillment via artistic expression.
Justin: Well it is pretty amazing about art, all of the arts that they are not suppressible. They explode if you try to compress them. They will erupt. And yet we’ve seen it everywhere in the world. And in Australia, as soon as they go very far to the right, then they begin to hate criticism even more and to conceive of ways of punishing any kind of analysis that approaches criticism.
Lisa: Yes, and I suppose art by its nature responds to its environment, so it is always going to define itself by its contrary position to society. It’s just how it is born and created and lives, so it is always highlighting what we don’t want to look at, or what we find secretive. I just find it odd that it is not more respected in the main stream, given it obvious power, given its importance. It seems nobody denies its subversive nature and that power, and yet there is this kind of refuting of its authentic existence in a way. I find this very odd.
Justin: I don’t want to go along to the theatre and be preached to about something I am already convinced of. So on the one hand that doesn’t work, but on the other hand there are ways of delivering material, and of course the great example is Death of a Salesman, two people who are in that world and actually moving them to reflect on their own behavior. And I remember reading Arthur Miller’s autobiography, where he said it was extraordinary on the opening night, when big business magnates were moved to tears by the story and the conversations in the foyer were, “Have we done that to anybody, could you look that up tomorrow, please make sure we haven’t done that to anybody.” Now that’s a great play.
(What you can’t get from my words here is Justin’s fantastically amusing American Accent and Lisa’s laughs)
Lisa: Wow! yes I see.
Justin: Now that’s a really great play, that can do that. So in other words, it’s not, Oh those people sitting over there are horrible right-wing people and these people sitting over here are moderate left-wing, but how to move the whole of the human spirit towards Abraham Lincoln’s better angels of our nature.
… and so we are back discussing the play and the relationship between Australia and China… and eventually we make our way to Justin’s own talents with the piano…
Lisa: My goodness. That is beautiful. I want to ask you a little bit about the dangerous confrontation between Shanghai and Canberra. I think you’ve already addressed that actually, with the diplomats daughter and their relationship…
Justin: Yes. the Diplomat is caught in the middle of it, because his job is in Shanghai. Suddenly here is his son-in-law wanting to defect during a concert at the Opera house in Sydney. Later there is this fairly vigorous exchange that takes place in a meeting in Sydney, because the Chinese sent emissaries around the world to chat up these ex pat Chinese musicians, and try to cajole them into coming back. But it gets very angry, because our protagonist is not going to take it all gently. He is going to give them as good as he can. So it is a very fiery exchange that takes place. And the outcome is in the play.
China and Australia have a fascinating relationship. When I was much younger it was an utter mystery what China was. My parents taught medicine at St Vincent’s hospital and the Chinese students in the 60’s were all rather mysterious because you couldn’t just ring up a travel agent and book a flight to Shanghai like you can now. You had to be an official with definite business there and you would be allocated a definite guide. So its great that it was opened up by Richard Nixon and Gough Whitlam creating a dialogue with China. Recently the Chinese premier has been in Paris, and then one of the questions on French television was, pertaining to human rights abuses. And of course the answer to all these questions is to shut down. Every now and then these things come up, and they don’t want it any more than we would want them to do it to us. We go to China and we don’t want their questions to be “Hey wasn’t it terrible about all those people you massacred in My Lai?”
Lisa: No! You don’t even want to do that socially. You don’t want to bring up peoples indiscretions when you’re invited to dinner.
So I also wanted to ask you about your own talents with the piano and ask you about relevance to the play in your musical history.
Justin: Well, I had two important music teachers, one of whom I have dedicated the play to, who suggested to me that I didn’t really want to play the piano, rather I wanted to talk about it, because I used to ask them to play pieces for me on request and then I would ask them about it and we would talk. They both quite loved doing that.
Lisa: So perhaps you’re a highly skilled listener?
Justin: Well, no I wouldn’t say highly skilled, but I do really love to listen to music. I didn’t know, for example until I was researching this play that Bartok went to America, became very depressed. When you find out personal things in their lives and what drove their music and what inspired such incredible music that we can’t conceive of anyone ever doing anything better than that. Such great minds, so filled with music, like Mozart, and you just can’t imagine anything better than that. I love talking about all of that, and listening and learning about it all.
Lisa: Yes, it speaks to the romance around art doesn’t it, when these events and talents affect their lives so strongly.
Justin: Yes. And very visual too, when you read their letters and their thoughts.
… and on to the very interesting conversation about the Justin Fleming/Australia/French connection…
Lisa: Can I ask you a little about this French connection that you have, that comes out through other works of yours. It appealed to me immediately. I’m a bit of a Francophile, it’s a culture that I accidentally gravitate towards. I find myself immersed in something and I see here I am again immersed in French culture. So I was interested in your connection to the French. Yes His Mothers Voice is connected to China, but what is this fascination with France that you have? ( I am referencing several translations Justin has completed of Moliere’s work among other French projects.)
Justin: Well when I was at school, we only had Latin or French, and my mother had studied French and I had two Aunts who studied French. And the people in France still ask me why French is so popular in Australia? And I said that I don’t know, except that we are surrounded by a lot of French islands. French was the language of diplomacy in those days, I suppose. It was a very romantic language. It was full of art and music, and from my point of view as a writer who has come around to translating, Moliere mainly, is the proximity of the French language, the fact that everything is translatable. I mean there are exceptions, but it’s not like Russian where you have to struggle with so many differences, it’s so close and connects with us. But I think, culturally, they get the balance between work and leisure right, and that is a great phenomenon, as far as I was concerned, both as interested in culture generally, but also interested as a play wright. Also, plays like Waiting for Godot were in French first before they were in English.
The Second part of my interest in France is personal. In 1993 I was granted a writers studio in Paris for six moths. At the same time Fay Brauer, my partner was in a studio in the same complex (we had never met) I think for the art gallery of New South Whales. So I knew there would be an Australian in that studio and I picked up the phone and I rang. And so we got together, as we say it was love at second site, there was a lot of mistrust and suspicion at first (Lisa is laughing loudly here) …
Lisa: That sounds like Australians in France actually….
Justin: … (laughing) … and so we’re still together. One of her strong points of academic interest is French Art, so because of that interest, she was regularly coming to Paris and I would go with her. With the growth of the internet, I could work anywhere, so I traveled with Fay. So most years we would come to France for June and July and December and January, so it;s been a wonderful thing. I love the culture, I love the atmosphere. They are fascinated by Australia, the French, not only the indigenous Australians, which they are very fascinated by, but also they are very interested in Australia. Being Australian has gotten us into full restaurants, because I’m not English and I’m not American. Naturally they assume you are one of those two and are always thrilled to find out you’re not. So the good will toward Australians is very palpable.
Lisa: While you were talking, it just occurred to me…. see what you think of this idea… I didn’t realise Australian’s loving French culture was such a big phenomena. I’m not sure why I didn’t know that, because you just need to go to one of our French Film festivals and they’re packed, you can’t get tickets, Alliance Francais is extremely successful here – so I think I hadn’t thought about it properly, but I am wondering as I listen to you and I am thinking of Joyce and Beckett over in Paris, and I am wondering if it’s a kind of antidote to the Australian cultural cringe? Because they so conveniently loathe the British, and maybe its a kind of anti-British thing, without having to be openly anti-British? Something that relates to our own cultural cringe and our weird anxious relationship with Britain that has translated to America in many ways, in that is embeded in a nature of resisting American culture. So with the French, there is no danger of us disappearing into them.
Justin: You might have a point there.
Lisa: Especially when you think of Beckett and Joyce who have worse problems with the British than we do.
Justin: Having said that, we saw American impressionist paintings the other night, and there are a lot of Americans involved in the art world with France. But still, at the ordinary world level, there is still a kind of suspicion, especially after the George Bush years, all those insults for not going into Iraq – they were quite vilified by the Bush administration. The French haven’t forgotten that. There has been a lot of healing of that with Barack Obama. But that’s an interesting point. Australians and the french don’t endanger each other in any way.
Lisa: In a delicate sort of way, we have mutual enemies, which is not an appropriate term, no one would suggest it is all there in our consciousness, but I do think the cultural cringe is very much alive here. You see it particularly in theatre.
Justin: Oh yes, it is! If I say I have something in the theatre in Sydney, or the arts centre, or the opera house in Melbourne, people say “Oh that’s nice.” But if I mention New York then its “Oh WOW” even if its only a tiny little theatre off Broadway. “Oh WOW!” It just slips out.
… where we make our way back into Asia…
Lisa: (Laughing) Exactly. Back in Asia again, I was interested that you’ve written about a Coup d’Etat in Malaysia, and now here with His Mothers Voice, there is a lot about cultural prohibitions in China, and I was wondering about your relationship to Asia as a writer?
Justin: I studied law, and I did a masters in law and my main interest was legal history, and that included South East Asian legal history. But I’ve always loved that part of the world I couldn’t resist going to Malaysia and investigating the story of that play.
But these things are also about us. And exactly how much we make the same choices of direction that they do. And yet we always seem to blame them for being worse than we are. Some of it has come out in this disappearing airplane, because Malaysia is being accused of secrecy and of obfuscation but they’re stuck with a very unusual situation. And we are just the same. All of a sudden someone said the Australian Prime Minister told someone there was some debris out there and it turned out not to be the plane, but there was nowhere near the amount of criticism of us that there was of Malaysia.
And you also have to smile at China accusing Malaysia of secrecy … (we both laugh a lot) … but I love Asia and I have often said I would be very happy living in Asia because … to start with the cuisine! The majestic beauty of Asia when I fly through there. There is a beautiful culture going on in Asia. Some of these institutions are really struggling with the culture that is there. Dealing with ancient cultural phenomena that is so alien to us. Malaysia is fascinating, so many different strands of culture there that have to be united and yet also given their independence. So it’s a remarkable achievement. In Coup’d’Etat, the criticism is all of the king, but he turns the tables in the big final scene. I love doing that.
I am always suspicious of all voices and I love to offer a thinking challenge to a cultural norm. To set up something that appears to absolute, and then demolish it from all directions. Because my central concern in drama, I think, has always been the individual against the world. and until that individual has to deal with more than one reality, more than one drama, more than one truth, the story doesn’t really become interesting to me.
… and so we find our way back to the play again, when Justin waxes lyrical about Suzanne Millar…
Lisa: Regarding Suzanne Millar. She has directed your plays before. I wanted to ask you about your relationship to her and the current production.
Justin: Oh yes! We had a very long dialogue, in fact we’ve been talking about this play for a couple of years, since she saw the workshop. It was interesting, I had a couple of meetings with Andrew and in the end STC decided against taking up the play, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with it, because it’s not the sort of work you can just take anyone to, it’s the kind of play that is not for the faint of heart, but it is a very moving story.
Suzanne has championed these sorts of stories. I first encountered her with the story line at a festival in 2009 which was principally an indigenous arts festival, in which she was directing a play. I’d done a short play which she commissioned called A Land beyond the River which is about Africans in Australia and the interactions with our friends in White Australia. Of course I would never write a play that was all Chinese or all African because I’m not equipped to do that but what I do feel equipped to do, is to put in my version of them after talking with them. You’ve gotta do the homework. You’ve got to get their points of view. I did that with Malaysia, I did that with His Mothers Voice very much with the Chinese musicians. You have to be inclusive and I enjoy that process very much.
But you know they say, when they’re asked, what is it like being in a play written by a white person, they say “Well we don’t care who writes it, as long as a real portrait of the situation is put on the stage”. Then they love it. Because otherwise they’re not given the roles. They’re either background people, or they’re patronised. So for them to have big roles where they are part of the debate and passionate and given their space and the air, they love it, just as much as we all do.
So we started with that, then she took Coup d’Etat to Nida and then to Riverside, and that was the most beautiful production. I was so thrilled by that. Because the play had been done by the Melbourne theatre company and the Western Canadian theatre company, which are big companies, very well received in both places with an extended sell out season. And yet it hadn’t been done in Sydney. It was only through Suzanne that production happened, because they are so passionate about these sorts of plays. And her production of Coup d’ Etat was absolutely radiant. It was the most beautiful beautiful production. So I’ve come to know how she works, and trust her enormously. So when she said she asked if she could do this one, I said “Of course, Id love you too”.
And so we have a great relationship. She puts her heart and soul into it, she casts it beautifully and she is very aware and respectful of balancing “I’m the white director and you’re the cast” – she balances all that beautifully with integrity and quality and never patronises anybody. So wonderful, and these actors are fantastic. You know every now and then I go a but nuts when I hear people say “It’s so hard to cast an Asian play in Australia.” That’s rubbish. Its such rubbish, they are brilliant actors, and they have so much flair and authority. You hear this nonsense all the time.
That rich variety, we’ve got it there, we should use it.
And so it came time for us to wrap up our lovely conversation. I gave Justin the opportunity to add anything at the end that he wanted to…
Lisa: Yes. is there anything you’d like to ad at the end here that you felt wasn’t covered properly?
Justin: Just going back to your point on music, when we have a lot of words, which plays tend to do, music relieves the ear of the words and its so surprising to me that when we go to films, we expect music, and yet in the theatre, they don’t always expect any music at all. In a film we would buy the score, and yet in a play we barely notice the music. I go to a lot of opera and I am used to the sound of music in theatre, and for me, as an integral element, it is very important. Suzanne goes to a lot of trouble to find beautiful instruments that might be authentically connected to the culture we are representing, and I love that. In Coup d’Etat there was a live musician on the stage playing all these beautiful instruments, and just gives a haunted kind of theme floating underneath all the words.
Lisa: That’s a very interesting point about how music is so easily accessed by the viewer in film and yet we are not as aware of it in theatre.
Justin: It has interesting consequences for the actors as well, because in a film, when the music is playing, for the hero say, the music is placed in later, however in theatre, when that music is live, the other actors, for example the villain, know that the music is not for them. They have to deal with it live. So that creates another layer of complexity. Another way of examining how we get emotional with music. It also give the audience time to experience. If they’ve just heard a scene that is very laden with a lot of ideas they have to process, at the end of that scene if they have thirty second of music, they can explore and sort out what’s just happened. They can experience a relief from the drama.
In a long speech by an actor you can move an audience, but a piece of music in a few seconds can do they same thing.
I have ended the conversation here, but I will tease you, my dear reader, by informing you that Justin and I continued our chat about theatre and music for a few more minutes that I have not included here. I added by favourite point about the colonisation of music once it began to be recorded and the loss of music’s ephemeral qualities and Justin related all this to theatre.
But I can’t type up EVERYTHING now, can I?