SAVVY: Newcastle actor and teacher Janet Gillam plays Emma in the Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Picture: Simone De PeakSOON after the Newcastle Theatre Company hosted a photography exhibition in their foyer recently, several of their members were surprised to find a box packed with antique kewpie dolls left at the entrance.
On any other day a donation such as this might seem unusual but, on an afternoon chosen to launch the seminal 1953 Australian play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the gifts were as timely as they were thoughtful.
Anybody familiar with Ray Lawler’s play can appreciate the significance of the eponymous doll – his gaudy, but enduring, symbol of naivety and a love that can never grow up.
In an unflinching portrayal of two itinerant cane-cutters stumbling toward the end of their 30s, their earnest affections for the women who wait for them suddenly appear obsolete and misplaced.
By the time the wizened matriarch Emma casts her stone at the pair of them, the sun-tanned boys of summer are faring no better than the brittle and tattered kewpies themselves.
The Doll, as it is affectionately known, opens at Newcastle Theatre Companyon Saturday.
It is still regarded as Australia’s greatest play. In 1957 it became the first produced in this countryto be staged in London with an all Australiancast, running for seven months.
It will be Newcastle actor and teacher Janet Gillam bringing her characteristic modesty and savviness to the role of Emma.
The five-time CONDA Best Actor winner may have appeared in dozens of acclaimed productions over the years, but it is this work that still holds a particular reverence for her.
“I’ve known this play for many years and I’ve seen it staged a number of times,” Gillam says.“I think Emma is a fabulous character. She is the truth teller.
“She is the witness to the downfall of these relationships. She has a great deal of affection for all of those around her, but she has allowed her daughter to live in a situation that would have reflected upon her morally.”
The situation to which Gillam delicately refers was made all the more controversial when the play first appeared by the willingness of her stage daughter, Olive, to remain embroiled in it.
In a stolidly conservative post-war Australia, the depiction of an unmarried, 30-something barmaid gleefully co-habitating with her seasonal lover raised the eyebrows of audiences everywhere.
If numerous theatre critics were sanctimonious about the sinfulness of her character, it was because they spoke for a society that still beheld their church as the paragon of all virtues.
As they attached epithets like “chorus girl” and “floozy” to Olive in a way that belittled her otherwise obvious moral integrity, opponents of the play judged and gossiped as Emma’s own neighbours in the play might have.
For Gillam, reflecting upon how this must have felt for an independent and proud mother like Emma, played an important part in her preparation for the role.
“It would have been tough for her,” Gillam admits.
“I admire the fact that in the play she has allowed her daughter to live in this situation despite how the rest of her community might have perceived her.
“It was an era where shotgun weddings were arranged to safe face. In a moral context the suburbs of Australia were still a very strict place to live. Of course, people broke the rules but they were certainly judged for doing so.”
The instinctive and sacred loyalties owed by a mother to her daughter were similarly important for Gillam to think about when examining the motivations of her character.
Although it is the carousing blokes that come to occupy so much of Emma’s domestic attentions, it is actually Olive who is tied tightest to her mother’s apron strings.
Janet GillamSummer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Raw Lawler, will be performed at Newcastle Theatre Company, DeVitre Street. Lambton, until Saturday, May 12.