Interview with Martin Portus – The Les Robinson Story (Theatre Interview)

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The Les Robinson Story

Old Fitzroy Theatre 18 – 29 November

You can grab tickets here

The Les Robinson Story is a monologue by Kieran Carroll about one of Australia’s forgotten literary greats – a problem many people ahead of their time experience in their day, but is ususually followed by a posthumous discovery when their time has come. Not so of Les Robinson, whose book The Giraffe’s Uncle told tales in a modernist tone with leanings toward absurdity that critics disdainfully referred to as failed Kafka, in an cultural cringe ridden Australia that rejected anything not focused on the Australian bush. Martin Portus gives a heartfelt portrayal of Les Robinson, and I was lucky enough to distract him from this show briefly where he answered a couple of questions for me.

Lisa – Why, do you think, Australian’s neglect (or have an unconscious propensity to neglect) important cultural icons like Les Robinson?

Martin – Les Robinson was an eccentric writer on Sydney’s bohemian scene between the 1920s and 60s, well-known for living in caves around Sydney Harbour and playing his gramophone on the rocks. He had little time for the march of progress and real estate which happened around his various Harbour-side caves and shacks, as expensive homes reared up around him.

His comic and absurdist short stories are unique to Australian fiction. He was a contributor to The Bulletin, Punch, and the Lindsay’s magazine, Vision, but he only produce one book of strangely modernist short stories, The Giraffe’s Uncle, in 1933.  With hints of Monty Python to come, most were set around the Harbour : he loathed  inland Australia and all the then current writing obsessed with stockmen and kangaroos.  So Australia can perhaps be forgiven for forgetting him, given the times. And yet now Les Robinson speaks to today… but  speaks from a generation now just past living memory, from an earlier poorer Australia, a time of struggle and greater simplicities. It’s an irony that he tells us that he and his work would sit more happily in our modern times!

Lisa – It’s shocking to Sydney-siders, who love their fancy property so much, that we had a great writer living in caves on our shores. Why did Les live like that? Was he making a deliberate political point (an artistic point?) or was he making the most of being forced to live as an outsider?

Martin – Les was always a square peg in a round hole, a man who couldn’t face the endless days of a hard employer ordering him around. His work ethic was focused only on his writing and not the dreadful casual jobs he describes to us.  Indeed, as a proud loafer, he celebrates in the play his rejection of hard work in ways familiar to us from the literature, films and cartoons of his time.  And of course in the Depression there was no work for many of his contemporaries. The play captures  the hardness of the times in war, anguish and economic survival that he – and my parent’s generation – suffered through. Les though took his indolence to an almost evangelical belief; a defiant outsider who found kinship in Sydney’s bohemian scene but who died forgotten in a Paddington hospital in 1968.

Lisa – What do you enjoy about working with Ron Hadley and Keiran Carroll?

Martin – I know from my times as a theatre critic that one person shows can be a little declamatory and tedious, but what draws audiences to this one is Les’s urgent eyeballing communication with them. He’s desperate to be understood, to amuse, to be judged an expert on his time and his peers, and to finally win respect for his mad modernist take on life.  And I love that Kieran Carroll has written about an aspiring, restlessly thoughtful Australian who is however really more a creative failure than a success.  I like Les’ late life musings on that, and that he speaks with a gentile Australian brusqueness that reminds me of my own dead Dad.  What I took at first to be a wordiness in Kieran’s script, is actually the articulate way many of those men used to speak – and Les himself certainly had his own florid turns of phrases. So after now three successful seasons of the play, I think I’ve got that rich language under my belt and have found that distinctive early 20th Century Australian voice for it. Also director Ron Hadley was relentless in getting me to always consider exactly what Les wanted out of the audience, with every sentence he utters.

Lisa – What drew you to want to play the role of Les Robinson initially?

Martin – Having worked variously as an actor, journalist, ABC broadcaster and then in communications management, I was interested now in Les’ battle with what is success and failure.  He had \ published one book – his short stories – and The Les Robinson Story is very much the story of a creative struggle …a struggle of a writer misplaced in his time and his society, the story of an hilariously introspective bohemian.

I was a modestly successful actor in my 20’s, went to NIDA and worked on stage and in TV soaps, but then turned to other careers.   Most like me leave the profession before that time and, rightly, go on to other roles in the arts.  But after thirty years away from being an actor, this seemed the right script to pick up and get back on stage with.
My truth of Les Robinson I think comes from a love of his literary period, relating to his decline and social uncertainty, and to that history of tough and wartime Australia also painfully experienced by my parents.  These aren’t the empathies of a young actor.  Luckily, they were supported by theatre techniques which somehow came back to me after 30 years. It is like riding a bike.

Lisa – Please tell us anything else you’d like us to know about The Les Robinson Story.
Martin – Besides me, the play is rich with archival film from 1920-30’s Sydney, as well as contemporary music and some great  ballads from our singer Matt Thomson. We see Les’ world and literary peers but also his quest to drag Australian literature out of the bush … and into a more cosmopolitan future.