The Sunday Age
By Muriel Reddy
October 8, 1994
Burning House looked far and wide for material but found the perfect source close to home. Muriel Reddy reports.
WHEN the Burning House production of ‘That Eye, The Sky‘ is performed at the Melbourne Festival this month, it will be without Hugo Weaving.
"We couldn’t get him out of heels for long enough," says director Richard Roxburgh, referring to Weaving’s latest performance as a drag queen in the Australian film ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert‘.
The search for a replacement ended where it started – on the theatre company’s own doorstep. Roxburgh, an acclaimed actor, has decided to step into Weaving’s shoes.
"I am the last choice in one way because it would have been easier to have someone else doing it," he explains. "But in another way, a lot of questions are answered if I do it. The piece is rigorously choreographed so I know how to fit into that. I also have a relationship with the group which is strong and we understand one another."
‘That Eye, The Sky‘, an adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel, was a huge hit when it premiered at the Sydney Festival earlier this year. It was Roxburgh’s directorial debut and the first production of the company he founded with his friend, writer/actor Justin Monjo.
The men, both aged 33, belong to what they call "Generation X" and the launch of their company is an attempt to prise theatre away from the baby boomers who have dominated it for more than 20 years. "I have no time for the vast architecture that has dominated theatre especially throughout the ’80s," explains Roxburgh. "And it’s still lingering now."
The main thrust of Burning House is to tell stories and to tell them simply. Actors, designers and co-adaptors all have input in the production.
"This is theatrical work that relies on a mad naivete on the part of those involved – a sense of leaping into very deep water and hoping that someone is going to yell instructions," says Roxburgh. "It is gruelling, joyous and very badly paid!" In the 11 months preparation and work that went into ‘That Eye, The Sky‘, Roxburgh and Monjo earned just $4500 each. As Monjo says: "We’re certainly not in this for the money. We’re not in it to get famous and we’re not in it to work." Both men are regularly employed elsewhere – Roxburgh has just played Hamlet under Neil Armfield’s direction and Monjo has just completed his second novel, ‘Migraine’s Letter‘.
So if money and fame are not the incentives, then what propels two young men to expend so much of their energies and enthusiasm. "It’s just so your heart doesn’t die," says Roxburgh earnestly. "It’s just so you don’t turn to stone. I feel so much more alive having this company. It’s just a sense of freedom."
When they started the company a year ago, they thought they would like to produce a work by a South American author such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Roxburgh had spent some time there and was conscious of strong parallels between that continent and Australia. Both men were also turned on to the spiritual dimension of South American work. But in the end, they found exactly what they were looking for at home, in the work of Australian writer Tim Winton. It was Monjo’s wife, Gail Watson, who drew their attention to the novel.
‘That Eye, The Sky‘ is the story of Ort, a 12-year-old boy with a wild imagination and a quirky family to match. His world is upended when his father is involved in a car accident and slips into a coma. The story tracks Ort’s efforts and those of his family to come to terms with the trauma and to bring Mr Flack back to consciousness. It is described as a rites-of-passage story, one of love, faith and great spirit. And for the cast, it was great fun to do.
But when Roxburgh and Monjo watched the first full dress rehearsal on New Year’s Eve, their hearts fell. "It was such a Dante experience," recalls Roxburgh. "So much love had gone into this thing and it was a steaming pile of shit. We stayed up late drinking, rewriting and completely reworking the first 10 minutes."
THEIR efforts paid dividends and they have earned glowing reviews.
‘The Australian‘ described the production as "robust, innovative and adventurous". It reported: "In the company’s hands, Tim Winton’s quirky rites-of-passage novel comes energetically to life, with only an occasional lurch in pacing and narrative."
Roxburgh, who graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art eight years ago, is both modest and cautious about the performance of his company so far. As he says, it’s still early days and its next production could be a turkey. In his speech, the actor often slips into references to fire – as in the "Dante experience" of watching the first run through of ‘That Eye, The Sky‘.
It was he who christened the company Burning House. It used to be said it was so called because when he was little, he liked to see houses on fire. Now he just smiles when asked if this is true. But he will admit that the party held in November to raise funds for the company is called the "Pyro Party".
The company operates from a battered old office in the fashionable Oxford Street in Darlinghurst. It has enough work to carry the company through until 1996. One of its more ambitious projects is to launch a floating theatre in Sydney Harbor which would be modelled on the one Aldo Rossi floated in Venice in 1979. Burning House has already received a gift of $1million worth of barges.
Roxburgh explains: "We have in mind a theatre that would be both dismantleable and mantleable, that could spring up at festival time and could move around the harbor. It would be stationary for performances."
The company is also working on a new production, ‘Ray’s Tempest‘, which is partly based on last six months of Raymond Carver’s life.
They expect to stage it in March or April next year.
More immediately, Burning House is returning its sights to ‘That Eye, The Sky‘. It’s an upbeat production, full of larrikinism. "The best way to express that practically was to use all eight actors on stage at the same time," explains Roxburgh. "It’s not a new idea. It’s not an innovative production. It’s not an innovative company. It’s just using whatever you need to express something theatrically. And hopefully move people in the process."
‘That Eye, The Sky‘ opens at the Playhouse on Thursday.