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Event Spotlight: Forget Me Not

Friday 26 April 2013

Event Spotlight: Forget Me Not

Tasmanian-born playwright Tom Holloway is having a banner year: last month he premiered a play at Tasmania’s Ten Days On The Island festival – directed by and starring former mentors Julian Meyrick and Robert Jarman, respectively; this month he opens two plays on the same night in Sydney and Melbourne; then he spends six weeks in residence at London’s National Theatre. 

Most interestingly, perhaps, is that in a golden-age of Anglo-European theatre resting on the shoulders of broad comedies like the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors and feelgood dramas like The History Boys, Holloway has built his unusually prolific career with works that almost exclusively deal with heavy, real-life subject matter – from the Port Arthur Massacre (in Beyond The Neck) to the Victorian bushfires (in Love Me Tender) and death and euthanasia (in And No More Shall We Part, which showed as part of Griffin’s 2011 season). This is a writer working on the frontline of humanity, looking at how it copes under extreme duress. 

In Forget Me Not, Holloway’s current production for Belvoir, he mines the experience of the child migrants who were shipped from Liverpool to rural Australia in the 1950s. The topic has previously been explored in non-fiction via Margaret Humphreys’ Empty Cradles, and narrative via the 2010 Australian-UK coproduction Oranges & Sunshine and the mini-series The Leaving Of Liverpool. Whereas these are historical accounts – of the scheme and of Humphreys’ discovery of the horrors that occurred at the religious institutions to which the children were shipped – Holloway’s play tackles the current situation.

“The Child Migrants Trust is still working to put former child migrants back together with their families,” he explains, “and in fact they’re really starting to run out of time: the kids are now in their ’60s or ’70s, so their parents – if they’re still alive – are really old. So the Trust is having to work really hard now to do what they can for these people, before it’s too late. So my play is about how this is really a very live issue – it’s not just history.”

In his research for the play, Holloway spoke with some of the ‘survivors’. He talks about a Sydney resident in his late seventies called John, who speaks with a stutter because of the beatings he received at the hands of the Christian Brotherhood, but in his adult life sat on the Campbelltown Council and was bestowed an Order of Australia medal. “He’s an incredibly charming, very funny, warm man. And yet the first 20 years of his life are like nothing any of us can imagine. For example, he didn’t get his first birthday card until he was 62. It’s kind of a small thing – but it’s also actually a massive thing.”

In the face of the pre-existing – and popular – accounts of the child migrant scheme in print and film, Holloway makes a compelling argument for his chosen medium: “The thing I like about theatre is the experience of it; and when you’re taking on a subject like this, then there might well be people in the audience who have read Empty Cradles or seen [the film adaptation] Oranges & Sunshine, or read some of the articles about this subject – but they haven’t spent time with someone for whom this is their life.

“Obviously theatre is all pretend,” laughs the playwright, “but what it can do is create the sense of spending time with a character – really getting to know characters in that way that’s not about facts and figures and things, but looking at how they sit when they’re silent, or how a character responds when being talked to; that sense of understanding something, which isn’t so much about words and cognitive understanding. It’s just empathy, really.”

- Dee Jefferson