THE Melbourne media christened Jim McNeil the laughing bandit because he was often amused at how easy it was to hold up a TAB or pub at gunpoint.
The serial offender would chuckle to himself, even as he was carrying out his weapon and a bag of loot.
McNeil was many things: armed robber and cop shooter; husband, wife basher and father; raconteur, recidivist and violent alcoholic; underage lover of a brothel madam, prison homosexual and charismatic womaniser. He was an unlikely arts sensation, but that’s precisely what he became after he started writing plays behind the high sandstone walls of Sydney’s Parramatta jail in the early 1970s.
Indeed, his talent was deeply instinctual: he wrote accomplished scripts – one of his plays won an Australian Writers’ Guild award – without having set foot in a theatre foyer.
Parramatta jail was a primitive place in those days: armed robbers, rapists and murderers were confined to claustrophobic, unheated cells for many of their waking hours and used buckets as toilets. Amid such privation, the defining irony of McNeil’s playwriting career took shape: he found creative freedom and discipline behind bars, but wrote nothing of value once he was paroled and regained his liberty.
Nevertheless, a small body of critically acclaimed plays endures. Roughly four decades after McNeil crafted his one-act plays The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice under the vigilant gaze of prison warders, these works are being revived at Melbourne’s Fortyfivedownstairs theatre. The instigators of this double bill, called The McNeil Project, are two actors cum producers, Luke McKenzie and Cain Thompson. In the director’s chair is Malcolm Robertson, the veteran actor and director who helped discover McNeil.
Robertson is 79 and still treading the boards as an actor and director in Melbourne. In the early 1970s he was a theatre consultant to the Australia Council when McNeil’s script for The Chocolate Frog (prison slang for “dog” or informer) came across his desk. “I read it and I couldn’t believe that it was only the second play Jim McNeil had written and that he’d never seen a play in his life,” Robertson tells Review. (In The Chocolate Frog, two hardened inmates subject their new cellmate to a mock trial that serves as a satire of the justice system and of conventional social mores.)
Robertson ended up taking drama workshops at Parramatta jail and directed the first professional productions of McNeil’s plays outside jail; these plays eventually would be performed across the country. When he wrote that the playwright’s work was Pinteresque, a suspicious McNeil thought this might be an insult. Robertson remembers how the writer, who left school at 13, “looked up a dictionary and he couldn’t find Pinteresque and he wanted to know what it meant”. He says McNeil’s plays, laced with an undercurrent of menace and impending violence, are also “about humanity. They show that wherever humanity is, we will make a home for ourselves. They’re bloody good plays.”
McNeil’s extraordinary career trajectory from repeat offender to prize-winning playwright began after he was sentenced, in 1967, to 17 years’ jail for armed robbery and shooting a policeman. He was 32 and was about to serve his sixth but longest prison sentence. Incarcerated with hard-core criminals in the country’s oldest jail, Prisoner 179 felt as if life had come to a premature end.
Everything changed, however, once he joined Parramatta jail’s Resurgents Debating Society, an improbable but highly effective debating and literature group for long-term inmates. McNeil started writing taut, tense scripts about prison life and prison morality that were staged for visitors to the jail. Soon, word of his literary prowess spread. As his plays were performed in and outside the jail, the theatre critic for The Australian at the time, Katharine Brisbane, became a champion and an intimate of McNeil. She and other activists including David Marr, a law student, pushed for and won his release from jail in 1974. His supporters even helped secure him an Australia Council grant before he was freed.
Alas, back on the outside, McNeil reverted to his old ways, drinking heavily, bashing women, including his second wife, actress Robyn Nevin, and hanging out with former crim mates. He died, penniless and homeless, in 1982, aged 47.
Were McNeil’s champions naive in thinking they had helped free a fundamentally changed man, Australia’s answer to Jean Genet, France’s famous prison dramatist?
Says McKenzie: “I think so, yeah. Because once he was released there was no period of grace, it was just adoration, as Malcolm Robertson says. He was just loved to death.” His supporters were “naive idealists … their hope and their own agenda with rehabilitating and seeing someone take flight perhaps took over and blinded them to the fact that he was a volatile, dangerous man”.
Robertson’s analysis is harsher: “He became the celebrity prison playwright and everybody feted him when he came out and he had no capacity to cope with this. Then when he misbehaved, many of them turned their backs on him. Again, it’s a commentary on human nature – they build up somebody and then some take delight in destroying that person. But he was not innocent in the destruction.”
Robertson acknowledges McNeil played a big part in his own demise; indeed, his behaviour often reeked of self-sabotage. (It’s also true a few early supporters, including Brisbane, stood by McNeil until the end of his life.)
At 29, McKenzie is 50 years younger than Robertson and is to perform in and co-produce the McNeil plays. He also has bought the film rights to Wasted, Ross Honeywill’s engrossing if hair-raising biography of McNeil. Why is a telegenic, clean-cut actor such as McKenzie, who played the younger Mick Gatto in Underbelly, immersing himself in the work and life of a criminal turned artist turned hopeless case? For the 20-something, it’s personal. His father, Paul McKenzie, was in Parramatta jail at the same time as McNeil. Though McKenzie’s dad didn’t know McNeil, the idiom, slang and codes of conduct described by the playwright in his dramas are deeply familiar to the younger McKenzie. “The plays blew me away,” he tells Review. “It literally sounded like I was listening to my dad speak.”
Like McNeil, Paul McKenzie was a recidivist who, as a young man, spent years bouncing in and out jail for offences including car theft, drug dealing and possession.
Says his son, who was reared largely by his mother and a stepfather: “Dad’s life story is so similar to Jim’s and that’s kind of what connected me to Jim. Dad was this abused boy, trampled on since he was young, and had his youth taken away, lashed out and took it out against the world.”
McKenzie is best known for his Logie-nominated role as a troubled ex-soldier in the Nine Network drama Special Rescue Ops. As well as starring in the McNeil double bill, he hopes to turn the biography into a feature film. “The narrative is so strong, it’s such a huge arc and it’s ultimately a redemption story I can see in there,” he says.
The actor says McNeil’s first professionally produced play, The Chocolate Frog, exposes the justice system’s hypocrisy and flaws. “It raises the question: what are we trying to do when we lock people up? Are we trying to reform people or are we trying to punish people? If you’re trying to punish them, it’s counter-productive. They’re gonna get out feeling bitter and more educated about how to go about committing these crimes, from the 500 inmates in there with them.”
McKenzie is talking to Review at The Australian’s Sydney headquarters. As he downs an egg and salad sandwich and an organic juice, it’s hard to imagine this polite young man playing a “hock” – jail talk for a domineering homosexual – who is determined to turn a young inmate into his sexual possession. But that’s exactly what he’ll do in The Old Familiar Juice.
This play, the title of which refers to an illegal prison brew, deals with prison homosexuality in a way that is confronting yet far from sensationalised. According to Honeywill’s biography, while in prison McNeil resisted homosexual sex for years but eventually accepted and enjoyed it.
Few in theatre had come across anyone quite like McNeil. He could be charming, witty, a natural storyteller. Though he had never been to the theatre, his scripts exhibited a feel for authentic characterisation, and a well-trained ear for the wry humour and clipped vernacular of the Australian underclass.
Yet, when drunk, he could be horribly violent. Honeywill describes how McNeil branded the breasts of his first wife, Valerie, with his initials after he suspected she was seeing another man. Nevin married him just 16 weeks after he was paroled, and the biographer paints a harrowing picture of how the actress – who went on to become one of the country’s most powerful theatre identities – became the victim of his alcohol-soaked rages.
He writes: “Stories of Jim standing with clumps of bleeding hair ripped from Nevin’s head are legion, leaving no doubt about how violent he would become when the psychological switch, fuelled by alcohol, flicked in his head.” The marriage was short-lived. In the end, Nevin took out an apprehended violence order against the man for whom she had fallen so heavily.
Nevin was not the only smart, professional woman who became infatuated with the ex-con. Brisbane – a reserved, patrician figure who published his plays – and film producer Margaret Fink – who asked him to write the screenplay for My Brilliant Career – also became romantically involved with him, according to Honeywill. What did they see in this small, thin, volatile man? “I think it was, you know, a journey on the rough side,” Robertson says bluntly.
“Pretty convincing sociopath,” replies McKenzie, who played semi-professional rugby league to pay his drama college fees. “It’s a world rarely revealed – behind bars. There’s a bit of mysticism about crims and jail and I think there’s always going to be a bit of an attraction to the dark side of the world, mixed with his literary prowess.”
Robertson witnessed both sides of McNeil’s character, the thug and the poet. Indeed, his then-wife was frightened of McNeil: “He would arrive at my home and my wife at the time would hide a pair of scissors down the side of the chair,” he says. The director reveals how, in an instant, the playwright could switch from telling him he was a great mate to attacking and “rubbishing me”: “He could turn when he got enough liquor in him. He was destroyed by alcohol.”
On the other hand, Robertson has memories of McNeil as a schoolboyish prankster. After he was released, he and one of his ex-criminal friends would telephone Melbourne police and play Nazi propaganda music into the receiver. “I don’t think they ever grew up,” he says.
In the biography, Honeywill tells of how Sydney and Melbourne elites fell over themselves to experience the frisson of being near McNeil, especially after he won an AWGIE for the third play he wrote in prison, How Does Your Garden Grow. His plays were being staged nationally, there were opening-night parties, media interviews, dinner parties heaving with preening celebrities. Some of the ritzier social occasions ended badly.
ROBERTSON laughs as he recalls how McNeil infuriated justice Lionel Murphy by burning a hole with a cigarette in the former attorney-general’s sofa. Events took a darker turn when the playwright visited the home of Melbourne philanthropist and actor Carrillo Gantner – a member of the Myer retailing dynasty who held part-rights to McNeil’s plays. According to Honeywill, McNeil threatened to kill Gantner and his children if he didn’t give him more money. In 1977, at a preview of his final play Jack, a deeply flawed work written in an alcoholic haze, McNeil and some of his associates attacked the actor playing a prison warder.
McKenzie observes that McNeil’s dissolute post-prison life partly reflects a broader failing of the justice system. “As Dad says, you get out of jail, you land on the street and that’s it.” Even today, he says, not enough is done to help prisoners readjust to civilian life. “People flounder. That’s why there are so many recidivists.”
One man who is happy to vouch for the authenticity of McNeil’s plays is Paul McKenzie, father of Luke, and one-time Parramatta jail inmate. He says the McNeil plays are “quite excellent. I was there [in jail] … And the lingo, I mean it’s very relatable. It’s quite amusing. My boy’s got the rights to do this play thing, I think it’s fantastic.”
Paul McKenzie recently read the dramas his son is helping to revive. He says the prisoners’ code of mateship that McNeil depicts in The Chocolate Frog is “very solid and very real. You’re not a give-up, you’re not a dog … I don’t give no one up and I stand solid and look after my friends. [It's] the code of being true, standing by your mates.”
There was a darker side to the code, too. “It was like maggots and dogs just didn’t survive,” he says matter-of-factly. (A maggot was “a real dill”.) Then there were some “real ridgy-didge psychopaths – intelligent, no conscience. The amount of shivvings [stabbings] I seen, not nice.” He had heard of child molesters or “rock spiders” being carried out of jail “in a box”. They were especially hated because many inmates – among them Paul McKenzie and McNeil – had been sexually abused as children.
Paul McKenzie recalls seeing McNeil in Parramatta jail, but he didn’t know him. (McKenzie served his last prison sentence before Luke was born in 1983.)
He says in the 70s other prisoners were, like McNeil, producing extraordinary art while they did time at Parramatta. “There were a lot of guys in there for armed robbery, a lot of guys in there for murder. You gotta realise that them guys were very decent blokes,” he says without a trace of irony or mischief. “Some of the art [being produced] in there, some of the oil paintings, were absolutely astonishing.”
Paul McKenzie grew up fatherless in an era when single-parent families were heavily stigmatised. He was sexually abused after he started working on a garbage run from the age of eight. He was molested again at a NSW institution for juvenile offenders. He was released from the home when he turned 18 and tasted freedom for two weeks before he was locked up in Parramatta jail for taking part in a car rebirthing scheme.
He has a resounding bass voice: in another life, he might have been a voiceover artist or radio announcer. Now 58 and living in Sydney, he doesn’t work full time, having broken his back and neck in separate accidents. At his son’s urging, he has signed up with an actors’ agency called Knockabouts; it’s for former criminals, bikies and prostitutes who want to work as extras and in guest roles. “It’s for anyone from a really rough background who wants to make a go of it,” he says.
Since signing up, McKenzie has found work as an extra in Underbelly and in a guest role (as a Mr Whippy driver) in the ABC drama Crownies. After decades of leading lives that sheared off in different directions, father and son are both acting. A production company is holding talks with the ABC about a possible documentary focusing on the younger and older McKenzie, and McNeil.
Luke McKenzie is “really excited” Robertson is directing The McNeil Project. The production will be a stripped-back affair, foregrounding the actors and the dialogue in a kind of tribute to the early, no-frills prison performances.
Says the actor: “Malcolm has taken any pyrotechnics, any lavish designs out of it. He wants it to be a story, a truthful story that the audience can connect with. It’s exciting to strip that away and get back to the basics. I think it’s going to be really good to celebrate that for what it is.”
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