Guinness and Lemonade. That’s a tight little bodhran you’ve got there. Milo dies onstage. A crowd singing in the dark. Two Bryans. Watching me watching.
Theatre projects sometimes undertake periods of what they call ‘creative development’, periods of experimentation or exploration in which the potential of a performance is explored. The processes are ill-defined, and a lot of bad practice and ersatz rehearsal happens under this rubric, but a lot of things are discovered that can be found nowhere but on the rehearsal room floor and the web of attention that hums above it.
in 1999 I was involved in a week or so’s creative development on a project called Milo’s Wake by playwrights Marjery and Michael Forde. The scenario for the play was an Irish immigrant to Australia staging his own wake while he’s still alive, and inviting his family to it, in a last-ditch ego-trip and search for relevance and love.
Part of his plan is to hire musicians to soundtrack the event with his favourite songs. I was to play one of these musicians. Despite my surname I’m not particularly ‘Irish’. Like many white Australians I could just as easily claim English heritage. But still. I like Irish music, both the modern songwriter-based and traditional stuff. Others have pointed out Celtic-style melodies in my songs. Finding a lyricism and humour in melancholy is also a theme. It may sound strange, but I also feel Irish rhythms in my body, and often tap out little percussive jigs when I’m supposedly at rest.
It wasn’t discussed in this manner at the time, but the musicians form part of Milo’s psyche, and witness his ‘turn’ as he demands the attention from his family he feels he deserves. Part players, part audience. But Milo gets more than he bargained for from his family.
At times I felt like an altar boy during mass, waiting for the host to be held up so I could ring the bell, aware of the ever-present risk of being missing a cue in public. Sitting on the sidelines, I could see what a difficult, inefficient, clumsy process ‘creative development’ can be. The help often hindered. Sean Mee was the central character both in the play, and the process. Script-based ideas seemed to loop and repeat unnecessarily. But there were also epiphanies that opened the work further. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought it mightn’t work, but the writers had made the play with love, and this winnowing shaped it further into a performance, rather than a script.
I learned the songs the playwrights wanted incorporated into the play, under the direction of the music director Erin Murphy. I was more Pogues than Fureys, so I’d never heard of most of them, and didn’t understand their broader significance until they were explained. I got my banjo fixed up. I learned the Bodhran. While I could see the play had its heart in the right place, I didn’t feel like it was going to work, but was grateful for the gig, and was learning as well as earning. Being on the sidelines means you get to see stuff you don’t see when you’re in the middle of the game.
After a week’s creative development (I’d come home and vent my frustrations in a script I was writing about theatre streaking) the Milo’s concept was consolidated and narrative expanded, the writers wrote and the work took shape. The play was programmed in La Boite’s season for the following year, and I was included in its cast, alongside two other musicians Ross Smith and Gary Nunn. While its performative and theatrical elements still wrestled inconclusively in the dark, the play found its feet in rehearsal, my suspicion evaporated and I engaged with it as I should have from the start: in good faith.
Milo’s Wake opened to good reviews and very enthusiastic audience response. So what did I know?
La Boite Theatre’s ‘in the round’, meaning it’s got a central performance area with seating on all sides. The design themed it as an Irish bar (in ‘plastic paddy’ style) had the musicians (titled the Wren Boys in a multi-referential pun) propped up at a bar, part audience, part performers. Cloth caps, waistcoats. Accordions, guitars, banjos mandolins, whistles, bodhrans.
I enjoyed smoking tobacco during the show (this was still legal then), and were furnished with pints of half-Guinness, half-lemonade so we looked authentic, but didn’t get authentically drunk.
I opened the play by covering the mirrors, and tending to Milo as he lay in his coffin, readying him to surprise his family with his macabre prank. I had no dialogue, only played and sang. This requires a very particular kind of focus and engenders a brand of performance rooted in the selective distribution of your attention to what’s happening onstage. In the logic of the play, we were programmed to interact only with the protagonist or with others the protagonist wished us to. Nobody in the audience is there to look at you, but they can if they want, and they do. And you can’t look back. And you play your tunes.
I was directed to sing a song solo for the opening of act two. ‘Steal Away’, a sentimental ballad by Phil Coulter, popularized by The Fureys and other Irish acts. It was meant to be an intimate, smoke-curled, spotlit musical moment that would point the play to a quieter, darker place narratively. Not being a confident singer, I just did the best I could, getting into the spirit of the song rather than ‘selling it’ in any kind of show-biz way.
One night, a low rumble entered my consciousness as I sang. Male voices, half-mumbling along with the song, then joined by women. Before I was halfway into the song I was accompanied by a hundred voices, singing along quietly in the dark. It was very moving, as this song touched audiences of a particular age and ethnicity, and the electric power of this modest little ballad was grounded into the firmament of music as a communal experience. This version’s sung in a fruity Irish accent. I made the choice to use my own voice.
The Milo’s Wake closed, but was remounted for a return season and national tour, quite an achievement for daggy old Brisbane. Michael Forde stepped in to play Milo. Part of me would have loved to go on the tour, but by that stage Susan and I were on the road to babyland. And I had other stuff on my plate. They replaced me no trouble, with Bryan Probets. It was a busy time for me. This Milo’s Wake article by Gavin Sawford in street paper Rave sums things up.
The Wren Boys later did a gig for the Brisbane Writers Festival, opening for novelist Peter Carey (who’d just released the ‘True History of the Kelly Gang) and actor Bryan Brown, who was to read from the book. I did the gig for the cash, but quite apart from the fact there must have been more authentic and musically superior Irish acts in town, the act made no sense away from its theatrical context.
I came to see Milo’s Wake when it returned to Brisbane from its year-long Australian tour. It was extremely weird walking in to such familiar environs as an audience member, and as I watched the show I was subtly shaken by miniscule muscle spasms as my body involuntarily leaned in and out of the show. I was ‘performing’ my part in theatrical moments I’d witnessed fifty times. But I was no longer Milo’s sideman. I was in the audience, man, and nobody was watching me watching.