Readers of a certain age will have almost certainly come across Ray Lawler’s 1955 play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as 16-year-olds, who while staring out of a school window wondered how a woman could wait around for a man for 17 years. That was longer than most of us had been alive!
Such is the perplexing and eternal drama of Lawler’s classic depiction of Australia of the 1950s, where rural came to the city; when we idolised the suburbs, and gender and sexual lines were being pushed and pulled in ways that would change relationships between the sexes forever.
These are the big issues that our 16-year-old selves could never imagine.
Director Adam Mitchell, who will stage a production of The Doll at Health Ledger Theatre for Black Swan State Theatre Company in May, recounts a similar trajectory.
“I first came upon the play in high school and it didn’t speak to me at all,” he told Medical Forum. “Then when I started making theatre in my 20s, I still didn’t have a place for the play because I wanted to be out there making sexy, cutting edge drama.”
“Then 10 years later I read it again and was blown away by just how good it was. There have been parallels to Eugene O’Neill’s work and I think that’s a fair comparison. After 60 something years of being played around the world it is a delight.”
Part of Adam’s enthusiasm was finding the right actors for the hinge characters Roo and Olive.
Roo is the canecutter who spends the layoff months with Olive and her mother in her cottage in Carlton. Despite the picket fence and wedding ring morality of the time, Olive likes it that way. The past 16 years, marked by the giving and receiving of a fairground cupie doll, were fun and carefree. The 17th summer will be different.
Adam who also teaches at WAAPA has cast Amy Mathews as Olive. Amy established her career in Sydney with stage and TV roles, including a run on Home and Away.
“Finding the right cast for this play was critical in order to do it justice. When I met Amy I knew I had found my Olive. She is such a wonderful earthy actress. I felt immediately confident, ‘We can do this play!’”
He has cast Aboriginal actor Kelton Pell, who has been a legend of the WA stage for 20 years.
“Casting Kelton offered a fascinating insight into the play. Clare and I both came to Kelton separately. We were looking for an actor who has this vulnerable, faded masculinity and being an indigenous man offers its own resonance.”
“I got a message from Black Swan that ‘Ray wants to talk to you’. I was delighted to think Ray still had something else he wanted to say, or wanted the audience to think differently about.”
Lawler, who played the part of Barney in the world premiere in 1955, had reread the play and felt the first act needed a bit of work as did sections of the second which would help it spring more readily into the third and final act.
“I was blown away. Here was the playwright after 60 years still wanting to make changes. This play is a living breathing thing. It’s a privilege to be doing a new version of the Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and possibly the last version of the work.”
Making her professional debut is Mackenzie Dunn who will play the role of Bubba. She too will have some inside information about The Doll. She is the granddaughter of theatre legends Jill Perryman and Kevan Johnston, who both appeared in the Hole in the Wall production in the 1980s.
So here we have it. The Doll for another generation.