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In Conversation with Richard Murphet

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Sitting down at the Banff in St Kilda with Richard Murphet, Theatre Works chats with the iconic Melbourne playwright and director about his electrifying new neo-noir thriller, The Darkening Sky. Enjoying its world premiere at Theatre Works this August, The Darkening Sky sees Murphet make his return to the Theatre Works stage for the first time in forty years, when he directed the company’s 1980 debut show.

Lauren Q: The first question I would like to ask you, Richard, is – as a writer, and director, where do you look for inspiration? And what instigated the idea behind The Darkening Sky?

Richard A: There are a number of artists that have been inspiring for me, as a writer and director in different modes, people whose work I’ve really loved over the years. One is Dennis Potter, who wrote The Singing Detective. Another one is David Lynch. Another one is Richard Foreman. Now, these are all people who, who, as writers and directors, write shows that you would think – and this is film or theatre – that when you saw the script, they could never be directed, and then direct the show in a way that you would never have expected anyone else to direct. And I find that really inspiring. I’ve actually written a book recently on writers and directors, and, that’s part of the argument that I’ve made. The other one is my partner, Jenny Kemp, who writes and directs her work, and whose work has always inspired me. So, they’re the kind of people who I’ve come to. People for whom theatre or film is a primarily human art form. But in a way that doesn’t just deal with the social reality of humanity, but digs below that to try and find out what doesn’t normally get revealed when we meet in society. Then, what got me going with this particular play? I don’t know. I think I have always, as a father and then as a grandfather, been interested in what it is as children that we don’t know that our parents are going through. We think that our parents are completely devoted to being Dad or Mum. But we don’t realise that, in fact, they’ve got their own life. And sometimes that life is quite tragic. And sometimes that life is active in a political way, or a psychological way that we are unaware of. And I wanted to try and look at an older man going back, and trying to understand what it was that made his mother tick. And that’s a bit from my own personal life. And quite a lot of the play is from moments in my own personal life. But I then created a fiction around that. It’s to do with innocence, leading to experience. Even at an older age, there are things that you can find out about life that you never would have expected if had you just ignored it.

Lauren Q: What are some of the key things explored in the play? You dove into some of them there, but is there anything else?

Richard A: An active life versus an uncommitted life. The two women in his [Jamie’s] life who have gone missing at key points in his life are both active women, more active than the men that they were surrounded by. And, in a sense, they sacrifice themselves to causes that they believe more important than themselves. The central figure, Jamie, is a person who’s never committed himself, and who feels guilt about that. He wants to go back and understand – did those two women, especially his mother, really love him? And, if that was the case, what is it that caused them to leave him? In doing so, he starts to realise that there was a whole hidden area of political operations going on, of underworld operations going on, in Melbourne that he never knew about. Below the surface of a seemingly unruffled waters of Melbourne’s life, there was a lot going on. That’s something that’s also fascinated me too. I mean – you and I, you know, we chat away to one another – outside here, next door, around the street, there are criminal activities going on, and activities with fatal ends going on that we never know about. And then Jamie suddenly becomes alive to it.

Lauren Q: In the writing and development of the work did you do quite a bit of research into real activities that have been going on in Melbourne over the years? Or is it more from your imagination?

Richard A: Well, I have done a lot of research into that for years. I have, for instance, I have a close friend whose parents were members of the Communist Party in Melbourne, in the early in the 50s, and 60s and 70s. And so, I kind of know of those activities going on. On another level, I’ve been always incredibly interested in Poland and the way in which Poland through the centuries has been a beacon of fighting against domination, and has had revolution after revolution. The big one of my younger years was the breakaway from the Soviet Union, which caused the Soviet Union to collapse. And I was always inspired by that. So, I had done a lot of research. But when I wrote the play, it came out in a month. It just sort of fell out of me scene after scene. When I look at it now that I’m directing I think to myself, ‘How on earth did I write that scene? I don’t even remember writing that scene!’. But it was like, every day I got up and I knew what I would be writing next. It was completely without problem. Now, I’ve adjusted it since, I’ve shifted scenes around since, but basically 98% of what I wrote is still there. But you know, I’m an older man. I’ve been through a lot in my life. And this play comes out of a lot of that experience, really, so, I didn’t need to do extra research for it.

Lauren Q: Things that you’ve accumulated throughout the years. Is that usual for you in terms of your writing process?

Richard A: Bits and pieces. I have written plays where they have just kind of gone – yes, yes, yes, yes. And other plays have taken me 13 years to write. It so much depends upon the play.

Lauren Q: Can you tell us a bit about the cast that you’ve assembled for this?

Richard A: The cast is phenomenal. I mean, I started with Brian Lipson, who I’ve known for years. I’ve never worked with him, but I’ve known him personally and I’ve watched his work. There’s something about the combination of deep knowledge, wisdom, emotional sympathy and mad sense of humour that was just completely right for the central character. So, I’ve sort of built the cast around that person. The other person that I began with was Tom Dent, who plays the detective. I’ve worked with Tom a few times before, and I love the way he works. He’s got an incredibly moody sort of dark side. But again, he’s very real, very, very street, very kind, very urban, but it is perfect as a detective. And the other interesting figure is the figure of Adam, Adam Pierzchalski. He’s a Pole, and I’ve worked with him a number of times, and he created in my mind the whole Polish side of the play. I knew that I’d be working with him. And then the two women. When I first thought of the mother figure I thought of Edwina, because of her combination of toughness, dedication and gentleness. And Jess, I only came across as Chantal very late in the piece. I had someone else in mind, she pulled out, and someone suggested Jess and my god, she’s perfect for it! She’s so feisty. I mean, she’s playing to rave reviews at Red Stitch at the moment. I’m lucky to have her. And then all the other figures fitted around that. Matt Connell came by Brian and is a complete blessing. It’s a very, very strong cast. I mean, I know every director says this, but frankly, I’ve worked on dozens and dozens of plays, scores of plays, in my life. I’ve never had such a uniformly strong cast as I’ve got with this one. They’re willing to take on the conceptual challenges of the play, and not to balk at them. They don’t try and make it normal. In fact, Brian just keeps saying, ‘Let’s go further. Let’s go further,’ and have to pull him back. And it’s great to have on the floor. He’s almost like my co-director on the floor, because he’s got so many strong arguments.

Lauren Q: So, the show is described as a contemporary neo-noir thriller. What more can you tell us about this exciting theatrical genre?

Richard A: I love film noir. I’ve always loved film noir. For me, the combination of stark, starkly lit sets with very clear storyline, mainly about a man who is lost, and who is melancholy, and who is desperate, and who therefore gets himself into all sorts of problems. And the detective figure is this kind of figure in in the play. He’s not a suave Miami Vice kind of LAPD detective. He’s like, well, you know, the obvious model is Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler in all those wonderful movies that they did. The Humphrey Bogart kind of figure, the smart talking, very bright, but down and out, private eye. Now, this figure came in as a way of undercutting the memory plot of the play. It’s difficult to describe the how it works, but basically, the central character is also a writer. And he is writing a detective story in the same time as he’s going through the memory. So that’s where the film noir comes in, where the neo-noir thriller comes in. It’s neo-noir because it is more anti-hero than it is hero.

Lauren Q: I feel like when we talk about neo-noir or noir as a genre, it’s easy to imagine that in a film context, but how does that translate onstage?

Richard A: A sense of mood and atmosphere. A sense of suspense in a kind of world weary way. A sense of the excitement of the chase. Even though deep down inside you, you know that the chase will never reveal him. That feeling of ‘what is going to happen’, but I kind of know deep down that nothing will get resolved. You know, that combination. Yeah, your question about theatre is an interesting one. And that’s going to depend a lot upon the lighting, it’s going to depend upon the way in which we configure it in the space. But the images that come to the people’s mind, hopefully will associate with a particular – I mean, my plays have always tried to find the middle ground between theatre and film. Because I think film does stuff that theatre can’t and the theatre does stuff that film can’t, and I’m always interested in trying to find what that middle ground is. Not to just sit with talky dramas, and not to rely upon speccy films. But those films which are somewhere sitting…like a lot of the film noir, I watch them and I think ‘I could put that on stage, and then it would be interesting.’ So, it’s that halfway point between the two.

Lauren Q: You’re using film in the show?

Richard That’s right. And that brings up something else that I think maybe you’re going to ask. The thing that’s really important for me and has been important for me writing this play is that it’s set in Melbourne. It’s not set in LA or some unknown territory or in Sydney, it’s set in Melbourne. In St Kilda, in Richmond, in Collingwood, in Mont Albert – mainly in St Kilda –but all the names, where people go to in the play – people will know, and will have heard of, and will have been to themselves. What the film does is reference those all the time. Catani Gardens is there, St Kilda beach is there, Collingwood is there…up in front of our eyes at the same time as it’s being talked about. I think we need to start claiming Melbourne much more in our art. I love the Jack Irish movies because they’re all set in Melbourne and watching them, I know the places. We’re so used to seeing New York and LA being the places that we dream about. We need to do that about Melbourne.

Lauren Q: You sort of answered my question here but, why is this a show for Melbourne audiences and St Kilda locals as well?

Richard A: Because dark deeds happen here as well. They don’t just happen overseas. Because we are a much more resilient people, and a much more committed people than we give ourselves credibility for being. And, you know, I don’t want to go into all of this, but we have a government at the moment that commits itself to nothing. But we as people do commit ourselves to things and art needs to keep showing that.

Lauren Q: Can you tell us about the last time that you were at Theatre Works for a show and how does it feel to be back?

Richard Wow, Lauren. The last time I directed a play for Theatre Works, was the first play for Theatre Works! It was called Dee Jay View and was put on by the original company as they were setting up Theatre Works. That was it. A long time ago. And I’ve been connected, I’ve been Chair of the Board here for a number of years. I’ve been connected to Theatre Works on and off. That was back when Theatre Works wasset in the Eastern suburbs before they moved to St. Kilda. They were out in Camberwell, Canterbury. And then it decided to move down to St Kilda. It was a play that was written by one of the members of Theatre Works and it was about the history of rock and roll in Australia. And all the periods that we went through – and we had songs, we had dance, it was great. It was a really fabulous piece.


Q: After all these years, what made you come back now?

Richard A: I’ve been directing shows at La Mama for a number of years since I left the VCA. I mean, for many years, I was just involved in directing shows at the VCA and training actors, training directors, doing all that kind of stuff. I’ve put on shows at Arts House and the Arts Centre and places like that. And then, when I retired, I thought – I’m not going to work in places that need huge budgets. I’ll just work at La Mama. I did five shows at La Mama over four years. And I thought for the next show, I need a bigger space. And I’d like to go back to Theatre Works!

THE DARKENING SKY by Richard Murphet 4-14 August (postponed)


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