Ill communication – The work of Tom Holloway
Tom Holloway's writing is like fine keyhole surgery – elegant, deceptively simple, requiring of just a small incision, but which, before you know it, has transformed your viscera. He cuts through the skin with accuracy and ease, without fuss or bombast, and is quick to locate the nerve centres, the tendons, the cancer. Tom is beady-eyed, relentless and able to achieve maximum impact with the most minute of movements. His achievements are technical, astonishing and emotional.
From his earliest plays Tom has uncompromisingly interrogated the warp and weft, the evasions and lies, the dirty fabric of our needs and wants. Desire is at the heart of his drama, with the abject placed hard up against the romantic, the deluded with the desperate, the joyous with the malignant. And he has constructed increasingly complex machines in which to house these brutal, ferocious, heart-rending cravings, longings and aspirations, but always doing so with a steady hand and a remarkable degree of surface calm.
For an audience outside Australia it is significant that Tom is not from what most Australians refer to as the Mainland. Already and at once he is of Australia, yet distant from it, he is one of us, yet not one of us. Tom grew up in Tasmania, a south land with a distinct culture and history, alive in fiction and the Australian imaginary for its great beauty, vicious colonial past, impossible, impenetrable wildernesses, black volcanic lakes, mythical tigers and intense isolation.
Less pejoratively, it forms 1% of Australia's total land-mass, is separated from mainland Australia by the 240km long Bass Strait, has 2% of Australia's population, is home to fine wine, remarkable cheeses, delicious apples, the brilliant Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and is bigger than the Netherlands and Denmark combined (just a bit bigger than Ireland). Interestingly Tasmania also hosts Australia's Antarctic Division, with Tasmania's capital city, Hobart, known as the Gateway to the Antarctic - Antarctica being about 2,500km, or just one ocean, away.
When Tom permanently left Australia (he has since returned) his destination was a place almost equidistant to the other terrestrial pole, Norway: another home of great extremes, few people, and its own language, history and culture. At the forefront of Tom's experience then, and elemental to his very being in the world, is a tyranny of distance, the dominance of an inhuman, hostile landscape, and the scarcity of humans. Tom has regularly immersed himself in places of rare wonder and beauty, places where, should you scratch their surface, survival becomes treacherous and physical and emotional pain inevitable.
I am not proposing that Tom is some modern-day Wordsworth, Goethe, Kleist or Emerson, writing to transcend the over-soul, nourished romantically only by landscape, language and intuition; nor am I suggesting that an author is built only from one's origins. Tom was simply lucky enough to have seen the world through the prism of humans in extremis, to have lived in places where landscape, isolation and resilience go hand in hand – a rather unique and exciting perspective then to write about polar explorers.
As for Tom the romantic, he is too urban, too restless, too quietly interrogative and too resolute in his pursuit of people and their foibles to be pinned down in any such way. He is very much of this world, very much in this world and alert to all of the heart aches and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. His growing body of work is rationalist, inquisitive, takes nothing for granted and is finely balanced between awe and scepticism. The setting for the first play of his that I encountered, Revelator, speaks very much to isolation and suffering, set as it is in a remote desert roadhouse. With Sam Shepard as his touchstone he began his interrogation of landscape, language and form. The drama is terse, coarse and brims with a persistent undertone of both regret and violence. It was immediately evident that here was a writer of real capability, genuine ambition, formal curiosity, and a keen observer of emotional disquiet and productive antagonism.
The next play of Tom's that I tracked – which garnered critical and commercial success, and myriad productions – was his study of the Tasmanian mass murders at Port Arthur, Beyond the Neck. The horror of that 1996 event – a crazed, lone gunman opening fire on visitors to an historic prison an hour outside Hobart, killing 35 people and injuring 23 – still resonates across Australia. Tom's focus was not as a documentarian or historian but rather on how to render tragedy (something that has subsequently become an artistic pre-occupation, leading to a later engagement with the classical tradition of tragedy itself, Tom subsequently freely adaping Agamemnon and Iphigenia in Aulis). Tom conducted interviews with survivors but his interest was not in creating verbatim theatre. Instead Tom immerses us in a place of contradiction and wonder, of laughter and joy, of grief and indefatigability, of healing and acceptance. We are isolated. Places can be haunted. But we can be isolated together.
The success of that play saw Tom busy writing to various commissions, but always pursuing an interest in stories from the margin, of the outsider, of injustice or misprision. Most particularly he has a great nose for trauma. Prior to Freud's use of that word as a descriptor for psychic damage, it was simply a word derived from ancient Greek, then Latin, to mean a physical wound, often with a connotation of battle, a wound involving twisting or piercing. For a writer of Tom's calibre and interests, this is catnip. Trauma, for Tom, is never self-explanatory, self-fulfilling or an end in itself, but rather an incitement to discourse, a red flag, a locus for the collision of confusion, desire, rage, damage, the continued inflicting of pain and the burrowing of toxic memories into one's psyche. Whether it manifests in the trauma of family dislocation as a result of the forced child migration schemes of Britain (Forget me Not), the trauma of terminal illness and the hope/spectre of euthanasia (And no more shall we part), the brittleness of existence after service in war (Don't say the Words) or the sexualisation of young girls, and the sacrifice of the child for the father (Love me Tender) Tom's plays burn with laser-like precision, single-mindedly chasing uncertainty, fury, folly, horror, ecstasy and the intersection of the immanent with the personal. Tom dramatizes adverse landscapes in which humans are prey to unknowable forces – especially to themselves – and we see our society contained, rotten, in need of thorough renovation.
Another aspect of Tom's work that requires close attention is his ability to match form with content. As with many contemporary playwrights such as Martin Crimp, Caryl Churchill or Sarah Kane, much of his preparation for writing a new work is in ensuring that the story is wrought correctly on the page, that it finds the right structure and is the formal equivalent of the story. His play Red Sky Morning is a haunting depiction of teenage rebellion, male depression and domestic tragedy. Written for three actors it was one of Tom's first forays into making a play look less on the page like a traditional play and more like a transcription of three simultaneous first person stories. Are they real? Is it fictional? Why are they talking directly to us and not each other? And how do the story pieces fit together and play together? It was a significant signal - Tom had created a work of art that was not just a story, not only a drama, but included its own formal challenges in the writing itself. And the writing, while naturalistic, was also deeply, richly poetic. Further, each line, every utterance and all gestures were utterly precise and carefully calibrated, yet the play is very much open to interpretation and relied on, demanded even, the allied, active and engaged vision of his collaborators. It was also very much a play – it just didn't look like one usually does on the page.
In this play about isolation and failure to communicate Tom gives insight into these character's lives through the form of interconnected monologues, a form that also, conversely reveals the depth of their estrangement from one another. This interest in the form of a play is evident in most of his works and in his play Faces Look Ugly Tom daringly creates the horrific worldview of a serial killer, a play steeped in lies and horror – a fascinating study in the writing of evil and representation of the real.
And with this opera, South Pole, Tom has written the libretto in two discrete columns, for the two separate and competing expeditions, replete with cut-offs, intersections, harmonies, echoes, repetitions and a rich contrapuntal sense of rhythm and melody across the two stories. It is also a typically clever way of managing the idea of simultaneity, a concept that is at the heart of this tale – two missions to the South Pole which occurred at the same time, one that would end in death, the other in fame. Another formal innovation that occurs in many of Tom's plays, and does so again here, is that the certainty of language itself is put under pressure. From the very first moment of South Pole (and the very last) communication is pulled to bits as the libretto begins with Morse Code. This most efficient way to communicate, a language without emotion, the lingua franca of the explorer and the outlier, conveys also pain, loss and misery in its terseness, blankness and absence of warmth or humanity.
In life Tom Holloway is humble, fun and engaged; in his writing for the stage Tom is ceaselessly ambitious; formally and thematically provocative; thoughtful in his desire to enrich us intellectually and emotionally; and wickedly precise in his urge to probe, and dramatically render, our human wounds, wounds that we inflict with casualness, foolishness, conviction. His playwright's arsenal includes silence, time and language, all of which he deploys to cut through the quick to get to the truth about us all: we possess moral courage but too often fail to act. Walking out of one of Tom's plays we feel strongly that we have been challenged, shocked, changed, that he got inside us, twisted and pierced us. Like a good surgeon, Tom has seen through and transformed us, more than likely, for the better.
Chris Mead is Literary Director of Melbourne Theatre Company and first met Tom in 2001 at Interplay, the International Festival for Young Playwrights, when Chris was its artistic director.
Dieser Text wurde geschrieben für das Programmheft zur Uraufführung von South Pole und erscheint dort in deutscher Übersetzung.