This paper reviewed the first public performance of A Local Man by Bob Ellis and Robin McLachlan in August 2004. The production was for the small audience who could fit into the Ponton Theatre on the Bathurst Campus of Charles Sturt University.
Though the script was simply subtitled “a new play about Ben Chifley” with the likelihood of some re-writing in mind and the performance by Tony Barry needing to settle down, even the try-out showed the play’s capacity to create an emotional response and we expressed the hope that it would tour Australia.
Tony Barry Enterprises and Keep Breathing Productions have kept the hope alive. After a successful 6-week season at The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney last November-December, we shall have the opportunity to see what is now dubbed “an intimate portrait of a great Australian statesman” here at The Playhouse, March 7-11.
A Local Man is quite the oppposite of an historical tract, though the research behind the story is meticulous. After losing to Robert Menzies in 1949 and 1951, Ben Chifley had to face up to losing his party leadership. Ellis and McLachlan have imagined his last evening at home, writing his farewell speech. The strength of the play is not so much about what he decides to say, but much more about his feelings, often hidden even from himself. We see a man of integrity and discipline close to his final point of no return. Tony Barry captures Chifley’s manner and mood, making this brief moment in his life into a time of tragic significance as we cannot help ourselves compare the past with the present.
Robin McLachlan is the historian half of the writing team and has kept a close eye on the production. Since the Ensemble cut two major phone calls Chifley made as he wrote his final speech, McLachlan has had his say. The production we will see, at 140 minutes including interval, is the complete script as published by Currency Press in 2005.
Well-known author Bob Ellis, whose theatre writing career goes back to the now legendary The Legend of King O’Malley which he co-authored with Michael Boddy, could probably only be trusted to give me a biassed assessment of the 2006 season of A Local Man. But I checked the internet, as one does.
Surely Fiona Prior, writing on the Henry Thornton website, which is so closely associated with the Institute of Public Affairs (“Australia’s leading free market think tank”) that you can log in for joint membership, must be an independent voice. Well, she says of the night she saw it at The Ensemble, it was “almost full house. This indicates the popularity of A Local Man and an interest by the audience – like my own – to acquire greater insight into the characters who formed Australia’s political history and present.”
Ellis told me “Bob Hawke wept on my shoulder” and “Bob Carr cried, perhaps the only time since his father’s funeral”. He reported many others with similar feelings, saying how Chifley led “an exemplary but forgotten life” and bemoaning “if only there were leaders like that now”. Gough Whitlam was “very impressed” and when Barry Jones sat in on a seminar following a performance “he answered all the questions put to me”.
The explanation Ellis has for the impact of watching a defeated Prime Minister, all alone on a cold and stormy night in his small cottage in Bathurst (which you can visit today), writing what he expects to be his last speech to the next day’s Labor Party Conference (as it was), knowing his health may fail any time (as it did only three days later) is that Chifley spoke for the working class in an era when ordinary people’s talents were wasted. Only the few were educated, only the wealthy had access to power.
Perhaps ironically, it is Fiona Prior who lists Chifley’s achievements. “These included the Snowy Mountains Authority, the development of what we know as Qantas today, what we once knew as TAA airlines, The Joint Coal Board, The Stevedoring Commission, The National Shipping Line, restructuring and expansion of CSIRO, the Australian National University and he was acknowledged as the political father of the Holden car.He was trail-blazing in the development of Australia’s education, immigration, welfare and health sectors. He was an innovative economist. He steered Australia through a war, a depression and avoided massive war debt.” That’s an economist speaking, and it’s quite a record.
Bob Ellis says, as we discuss the current Prime Minister’s understanding of history, John Howard’s motto is “Ignorance is strength” while Chifley took the opposite view that “Knowledge is power” and should be made available to everyone.
We may well expect to see tears at the Playhouse before the Ides of March.
A Local Man by Bob Ellis and Robin McLachlan
Canberra Theatre Centre
Wednesday-Saturday March 7-10 at 8pm. Sunday March 11 at 3pm
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