DOUG Fields, 55, works night shifts managing an outer-Melbourne supermarket, so he would seem to have scant connection with a fascinating chapter in Australia’s theatre history.
Fields is the eldest of six children of the late Jim McNeil, who is known in the theatre industry as a playwright whose talent burnt bright and fast in his small output of plays from the early 1970s, including The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice, both of which are having a rare production at fortyfivedownstairs from next week.
But Fields knew McNeil as his absent father who, when he wasn’t in prison, was often drunk, unpredictable and violent to those within striking distance, including his own wife and children. ”My mother was terrified of him,” Fields says, adding that having a criminal father was ”my deepest, darkest secret growing up” and was the reason he changed his name long ago.
But it was McNeil’s status as an uneducated violent criminal with a talent for vividly capturing male behaviour, the Aussie vernacular and dramatic structure in his first prison play, The Chocolate Frog, written in Parramatta jail in 1970, that led to his discovery by a young theatre set who championed his early release from prison.
They included the directors Malcolm Robertson and Carrillo Gantner, actor Graeme Blundell and playwright David Williamson, who described McNeil as ”a one-in-a-million born writer”.
In a letter of support for his early parole, Williamson wrote: ”Not only is he a playwright of extraordinary talent, he is a man who has a first-class mind which has obviously focused and matured during his years of incarceration to make him a considerable human being …”
The women who also championed his work – among them the critic and publisher Katherine Brisbane, filmmaker Margaret Fink and actor Robyn Nevin – were equally astonished by his electric writing style.
But they were also charmed by his wily charisma and the oversized vanity that came from being the boss cocky in prison. ”He was quite ordinary [looking] but he had very steely blue eyes that were quite hypnotic,” Brisbane says. ”He could be quite childlike, [but] my attraction was I think that I thought I could save him and turn him into a real writer.”
”He was charismatic,” Fields says cautiously. ”But he did a lot of bad stuff, too. The charisma was reserved for people who were of value to him.”
Within months of his early release from prison in 1974, where he’d been serving a 17-year sentence for armed robbery, some of those idealists who’d helped him get his plays produced in theatres across the country were on the receiving end of his alcohol-soaked violence.
Brisbane recalls him staying with her, her husband and young children, and threatening her with a whisky decanter in the kitchen. ”But we stood up to him,” she says. ”I said, ‘Just don’t hit me with the 200-year-old decanter,’ and he ended up running away.”
Nevin was not so lucky. The actor had married McNeil within a few months of his release, despite the protestations of those around her.
”She didn’t know any of the other inmates,” Brisbane says of the band of ex-crims – including a henchman known as ”the Hun” – with whom McNeil caroused once he was out of jail.
The short marriage ended with Nevin taking out an apprehended violence order against McNeil after numerous beatings and his insistence that she stay home and wash dishes rather than go to the theatre where she was supposed to be on stage. Their next-door neighbour, the actor John Gaden, once came to plead with McNeil to let Nevin out of the house but he was hit over the head with a bottle.
Nevin never talks about the marriage, but Fields lived in Sydney with the couple briefly during their marriage and witnessed both the ”bewildering” new fame McNeil revelled in and the treatment he meted out to Nevin. ”He gave it to her pretty hard …” Fields says. ”They were chalk and cheese.”
Brisbane says that although McNeil’s plays are set in the hierarchical world of prison with all its menace and sexual opportunism, ”they are quite Chekhovian in a way because they are about people”. She says that The Old Familiar Juice contains one of the great endings in Australian drama.
”The older prisoner is watching the chap who’s about to feel up the young prisoner and asks, ‘What are you doing?’ And his answer is, ‘Who? Me? I’m doing 15 years.”’
One reason McNeil’s plays are rarely performed is that there is often confusion over who owns the rights to them. On more than one occasion McNeil is said to have conned strangers in pubs into buying the rights to his plays but they were legitimately sold to Robertson, Gantner and Blundell in the early 1970s for $15,000. McNeil bought five cars with the money.
Robertson – who directed the first ever professional production of The Chocolate Frog (rhyming slang for ”dog”) at Sydney’s Q Theatre in 1971, and The Old Familiar Juice for the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1972 – now owns the rights.
He is directing the fortyfivedownstairs production of both plays that are being produced by Sydney actors Luke McKenzie (known for television’s Underbelly and Rescue Special Ops) and Cain Thompson, who appear in the double bill of plays along with Richard Bligh and William Ewing. McKenzie’s father was in Parramatta jail at the same time as McNeil which the actor didn’t know until he read the play and recognised the 197os prison slang.
McNeil died aged 47 of alcohol-related illness in 1982, when he was living at Ozanam House for homeless men in Melbourne. Brisbane arranged for his gravestone at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney to bear one of his play’s quotations – ”There are more things to heaven and earth than you can poke a stick at” – but it was not allowed by cemetery management. ”Months later I visited the cemetery and the stone said: Jim McNeil ‘playwright’, with playwright in inverted commas,” Brisbane says. ”To my mind this said he was a so-called playwright. I remember him saying to me ‘Most people call me a crim but you’re calling me a writer’. And he was a writer.”
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