It has been 55 years since Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll premiered at the Melbourne University Union Theatre, beginning a sequence of events that made it an essential part of Australian theatre. The current Melbourne Theatre Company production, under the direction of Neil Armfield, has been showing since 12 January, concluding on 18 February.
To dive then, into the important features of the play. Barney (Travis McMahon) and Roo (Steve Le Marquand) spend a good part of the year in the cane fields. There, sweat and money are to be made in the company of men and masculine prowess. When work finishes, they return to a Carlton boarding house run by Emma (Robyn Nevin), where her daughter Olive (Alison Whyte), Nancy, and Kathy ‘Bubba’ Ryan (Eloise Winsestock) await for the ‘lay-off’, a five month period of suspended realities and hopes whittled away at Young and Jacksons. The rest of the year, the girls sustain themselves on emotional rations, waiting for the two men to return with their swagger, their presence, the permanent boyhood promises.
This is their seventeenth summer, and the assumed appearance of the seventeenth kewpie doll, the child-like reminder of the cradle-like relationships between the characters, arrives in a different setting. Nancy, who made up the swaddled quadrumvirate – is no longer there for Barney. She has fled the nest and gotten married. Instead, Olive’s friend Pearl (Helen Thomson), pinched from the bar, is there to entertain the prospects of an awkward addition as Barney’s spare.
The layoff is the central part to the play. Each figure plays his or her part in mutual infantilization. Apart from the absent Nancy, only the cranky, flinty hard Emma cuts through the charade, a life-bitten oracle who knows all there is to know about the house. She has to, she grumbles, largely because no one tells her anything. To Emma, Olive is a child in a permanent state of petrification.
This permanent state of boobydom scuttles the relationships. The prospect of marriage, that awful scent of reality, appears in the final scene like a noxious substance. Olive crumbles and exits. Roo is stunned by the rebuke, the branded thief of fantasy. In the end, there is an almost homoerotic reassurance by Barney to Roo that they will be together – they walk off the set, into the light. At the end of the day, there is this confessional vessel called ‘mateship’.
It is hard to empathise with the characters who, for the most part, seem bloodless. This is not to take away from its brute naturalism, which assaults the audience like the burning sun, a depiction of an Australia that was still bound to its ritualistic restrictions – the six o’clock swill, the cloying, vulgar peach walls that are effectively presented by the set of Ralph Myers. Lloyd Bradford Syke, in a review of a performance by the Belvoir Street group, had a personal reflection (Crikey, Oct 6, 2011): ‘In many ways it defines and embodies the theatrical notion of naturalism and it’s little wonder it still holds as perhaps the most significant of all Australian plays to date, by dint of its uncompromisingly realistic depictions of Aussie characters and life.’
The MTC specialises in sensational directness, larding its performances with frequent instances of yelling, screaming, and gnashing of teeth. (Are the actors themselves assuming the role of wronged infants?) The melodramatic can serve a role, but does little justice in instances where the dialogue is well crafted. The characters would have been as effectively realised without the necessity for screeching, suggesting that the production was channelling the childish clutter of the boarding room. The final scene with Roo here was decidedly unnecessary – a man who has his dreams crushed can well be violent, but his simulations like some arthritic patient in pain before the piano verged on implausible. Perhaps, if we are dealing with a play about cultivated and enforced infantilism, this would be the fitting outcome – the total shock that the candy in the shop will no longer arrive.