Most playwrights hope at some point to write a play that speaks to their times and “hits the zeitgeist”. Plays really excite when they chime with the contemporary anxieties and preoccupations of an audience. The best plays hold a mirror up to society and allow audiences to confront their contemporary issues and condition.
To look back at theatre history is often to recognise landmark plays that have connected with audiences to help them comprehend their present - Clifford Odet’s Waiting For Lefty in the thirties or John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger in the fifties, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf in the sixties, Williamson’s The Removalists in the seventies or Sarah Kane in the nineties with Blasted to name just a few.
These plays speak to audiences on some deep level and connect with their fears and dreams. Live theatre in this sense returns us to this communal ritual event where we bear witness to our experience, “to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. It is very exciting when you sit in a theatre and sense that an audience is connected to the work in this urgent way.
Why and how a play chimes with the present moment is a very complex and variable thing. Sometimes, it’s possible to hit the zeitgeist a little too closely in ways that audiences find too confronting, as I found out myself in April 1996 when my play in rehearsal, Angel Of Mercy, hit the zeitgeist in a way that surprised and chilled. The play was about a random mass shooting and based loosely on the life of Frank Vitkovic, who went on a rampage in Queen Street, Melbourne in 1987, a story I’d brooded on for years before daring to write. A few weeks before opening at the Black Box Theatre in Parry Street, Martin Bryant unleashed his lunacy at Port Arthur and my play was suddenly relevant in an uncomfortable and frightening way. It was very difficult to find audiences that would see such a play. They stayed away in droves, but those who attended found the process of watching cathartic.
Yet another play, Human Resources, a dark comedy about the corporatisation of Australian universities, hit the mark locally when it coincided with the University of Newcastle’s purges in 2006 with inevitable massive cuts and job losses under that useful euphemistic phrase “re-structuring.” After a very slow start at the box office, word got out that here was a play about what they were going through and it drew an audience which often consisted of academics or those within the University community, some of them in tears – either of laughter or pain or both. But the play seemed to satisfy a deep therapeutic need.
In Hecuba Reimagined, I have reworked the original play by Euripides into distinctly 21st century terms. I have added new scenes and a contemporary idiom and brought in issues on modern technology and warfare. The play deals with PTSD, detention camps, border control and censorship and includes references to Iraq, Baghdad, and ISIS. We’re very much in the here and now. It’s confronting but again, cathartic, with some audience members emerging from the theatre in tears.
What is fascinating is to witness how relevant this play has become since I wrote it. Every day the play seems to gain in resonance and urgency.
The cast has been responding by sharing pictures and articles on their own private Facebook page, including the harrowing images coming out of Aleppo and Nauru. Their commitment has been inspiring and in part due to this sense of connectedness with the material.
It struck me that audiences (rather like our cast) not only connect to a play, they also in a way rework the play with their own interpretations. They piece out the playwright’s imperfections with their own thoughts and emotions. But it’s also the case that the contemporary context itself “rewrites” the play and changes the nature of the performance. Theatre is involved in this strange symbiosis and alchemy and the magical and shifting nature of interpretation.
Carl Caulfield is director and playwright of Hecuba Reimagined