The stage directions are very specific. ‘A small hut, dilapidated, built from old corrugated iron, with an open doorway. A four-gallon drum stands to one side of the hut. A cast iron table stands some distance before the hut and supports a (black) sun umbrella, folded, in its centre’.
Here, I thought, would be the first challenge. How to convert a gracious, peaceful garden, replete with a productive veggie garden and a myriad of assorted fruit and shade trees, in one of the leafier suburbs of Melbourne, into the harsh reality of the outback? By what stretch of the imagination could a charming Tuscan hued, purpose-built suburban amphitheatre, reflect the stark uncompromising scenario of ‘One Tree Hill’ – now without even its ‘one tree’?
In her direction of Jack Hibberd’s play, ‘A Stretch of the Imagination’, Reneé Huish, ably abetted by ‘set-builder extraordinary, Charles Talbot’, observes Hibberd’s stage instructions to the letter. There is a corrugated iron hut set against the back wall of the amphitheatre, a four-gallon drum prominently placed next to it, a table, chair – which boasts the legend ‘Monk O’Neill’ – and shade umbrella already in place. A ticking clock, is placed bizarrely at front stage.
Initially it is sound rather than visuals, which draw us into the world of Monk O’Neill. We are made aware of his presence by the overwhelming drone of snoring emanating from the hut. Even the shrill insistence of the alarm clock fails to make an impact. The alarm clock eventually gives up, the snoring stops abruptly and a figure, on all fours, emerges gingerly from the hut. It is not an auspicious start for a would-be hero.
For Monk sees himself as a hero, albeit a flawed one. He has, it seems, fallen on tough times. But as he struggles painfully to a standing position and starts to regale the audience with outrageous yarns of his colourful life, we are invited to share this assessment of himself. Initially we are more than happy to oblige, to laugh at the self-deprecatory yarns of his conquests. We want to believe that he was the quintessential Aussie larrikin, a great Lothario, a good mate, a talented sportsman who spars with the great Les Darcy and brought ‘the crowd to their knees’ by his superior skills on the footy field. We want to believe that his vanity about his physique and sexual and physical prowess is justified.
Yet as his bragging and bravado ratchet up, the subtle evidence of a less glorious reality emerges. He may have been a fine figure of a man in his youth, but now, in his senior years, he is crippled with arthritis, suffering from a painful and potentially fatal prostate problem. There are moments when he can hardly move and even more ominously, is unable to pee into the four-gallon drum. True, his response to these problems evoke hilarity but increasingly there is an edginess to both his narrative and our laughter. His graphic descriptions of his many sexual conquests, some with the wives of his best mates, begin to pall as we realise that in spite of this sexual prowess, his longing for a sustainable intimate relationship is unfulfilled. He tells us with some pride that ‘I was ruthless with women’. And is there a whiff of misogyny in these descriptions? – in all the affairs he conjures up for us, the woman are either whores or heartless!
But we never lose sympathy – even empathy – for Monk, however much the subtext of the script conflicts with his version of who he is. His exaggerated depictions of the rituals he observes, both amuses and endears him to us; his shaving routine, checking the temperature, running around the table -‘two laps of the oval’, his simulation of drying himself after a shower, (with his already soiled and no doubt smelly vest!). His observances of the etiquette of dining – carefully slicing a tomato on a plate and eating it with a fork or his reminiscence of choosing a sophisticated 1871 French wine at a salubrious Melbourne restaurant evoke a civilised and sophisticated life style as does his attention to sartorial detail, – different sun-glasses and hats to match his daily activities, appearing in a ‘tuxedo, white shirt and bow-tie with a smart hat and sunglasses’ – albeit still wearing long underwear and sandshoes – indications that his past life was not as bleak as his present one.
He relishes reading a novel while he is eating which reveals another and surprising aspect of his character. For Monk was once not only a fine physical specimen, he had a fine intellectual mind, the repository of esoteric knowledge. ‘Pythagoras was a vegetarian’. He has had a conversation about Baudelaire, with Proust’s ghost in the Montparnasse Cemetery, participates in ‘readings from Wittgenstein with musical improvisations’ and was ‘Dux of Classics at Xavier’. Further evidence of a intellect more suited to academe than One Tree Hill can be found his use of flamboyant, eccentric metaphor: ‘To think these once-supple dactyls caressed the ivories on many a Saturday night …’
Wayne Pearn is superb as Monk conveying the multi-layered complexities of Hibberd’s character with vigour and sensitivity. He achieves a fine balance between playing the grosser elements of Monk’s character for laughs, and almost moving us to tears in our growing awareness of Monk’s past and present predicaments. For surely we are watching his inexorable demise which he himself describes. ‘I would like my departure from this life to be a little longer than that. Perhaps a whole afternoon’. Pearn compels us into Monk’s physical world – the hot dusty landscape of the Australian summer outback or the bitterly freezing cold of winter which claims Mort as its victim – and even more compellingly demands our sympathy rather than our disgust about his physical degradation. But Pearn’s greatest success is to draw us into the psychological labyrinths of Monk’s mind. Even while Monk is justifying his amoral, rumbustious approach to life and love, ‘There is no such thing as love. It’s a misnomer for infatuation…’, we are gaining an insight into the unfulfilled potential that is the tragedy of Monk’s life. Such is Pearn’s craft that the narrative never descends into pathos nor do we, the observers of this inexorable decline, become judgemental. As we leave the amphitheatre on a perfect spring day in leafy Melbourne, our hearts and minds are filled with the plight of a dying man, clinging to the shreds of civilised society in his harsh irredeemable world.