The Legend of King O’Malley – An Australian classic given new breath by Don’t Look Away. (Theatre Review)
The Legend of King O’Malley
Seymour Centre 26 November – 13 December
Bob Ellis is one of Australia’s best male political writers, recent problematic books not withstanding. He’s been regaling us with tales of his position of privilege and access for decades, and I confess to many hours of great reading pleasure as a result of his diligent pen. If you find yourself lucky enough to agree with his sentiment on a certain issue, as I have in the past, you are treated to a great and cheeky wordsmith whose talent for telling tales out of school fed our hunger for the real life soap opera that politics is regularly reduced to. I’m not as familiar with his fiction, and I have never had the pleasure of seeing his and co-writer Michael Boddy’s The Legend of King O’Malley performed before, so I was thrilled to get the opportunity to see the play brought to life by the Don’t Look Away theatre company at the Seymour Centre. Despite being written in the 1970’s, appearing just before Whitlam was elected and focused on conscription as an issue, reincarnated almost forty-five years later, it becomes a fascinating engagement with Australian/American influence and the way Australians connect with their own politics. King O’Malley, based on an American preacher who did come to Australian and did toss in his two cents to put a stop to conscription, is a preacher in the States, and Ellis and Boddy paint him as a kind of preacher to Australian politics, neither wholly good nor wholly bad (though its clear the writers are against conscription – when have you known Bob Ellis to mince words about his opinions) but gently educative in his approach to the unsophisticated Aussies.
O’Malley’s relationship to his politics is the way Australians perceive American – its intertwined with his religion and heavily reliant on a broad vision that imagines itself to be clear, in this case as in most with the States, religion. But for the Australian’s O’Malley has to convince on point, religion has nothing to do with politics, and O’Malley must speak on the question at the table before him without resorting to a higher authority. O’Malley is painted all the way through as a Faustian toy, as if his religion constantly places him in a battle against himself, as if his every action carries more of the weight of the world upon it than his previous. His is a personality because, the writers argue, that is the natural consequence of this Faustian inner civil war, politics becomes the search for a savior, and the individual is an open battle for the soul. Behavior answers to morality, but Australian’s don’t relate to politics in this fashion, following a more British model. While The Legend of King O’Malley might agree with all that O’Malley tried to bring to Australia, it is at its heart, a play about the way Australians resist American cultural consumption and yet admire American power. Almost every Australian carries in their heart a secret resistance to America that is their own, and it is an important part of our identity. With the surface issues of The Legend of King O’Malley no longer relevant, these other nuances come to the surface, and the play receives a well deserved overhaul.
More than the words of Ellis and Boddy, this is to do with Phillip Rouse and his amazing, youthful ensemble who bring a much-needed vibrancy and new life to the play. From the gospel-esque, audience engaging start through to the hilarious second half where Matt Hickey incarnates a great Billy Hughes, the super high energy never lets up with the entire cast on point and focused for the duration. James Cook is particularly enthralling as O’Malley himself, never pausing for breath, fully engaged with each audience eye as the piece progresses, and a special shout out goes to Brianagh Curran, Tara Rankine and Jess Tanner for doing far more with their typically ascribed “women’s roles” than the script calls for. All this clearly has a lot to do with Rouse’s direction, as each of the cast are contained in a role of some sort, and each perpetually pumps high energy and enthusiasm through their presence on the stage. It makes for thrilling theatre, to see eight people on stage, almost all at the same time, who work individually and yet so much in unison. The play has been imbued with fresh imaginings and a strong vision to which all the creatives on and off stage bring a particularly high level of engagement.
This is an A-class production of an Australian play that might have been left for the history books if it weren’t for the Don’t Look Away theatre company. The Legend of King O’Malley has a few nights left in this Sydney season. Make sure you get to see it in its last few days.