Jim McNeil was an armed robber, a violent ex-prisoner – and one of the most important playwrights Australia has ever seen.
Sentenced to 17 years in prison after shooting a police officer in the late 1960s, McNeil began writing plays for the amusement of fellow inmates.
Now almost 40 years after he was released from Bathurst Correctional Complex, two of his most influential plays, The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice, will be performed in his home city of Melbourne.
The McNeil Project involves Cain Thompson and Luke McKenzie performing the plays back to back under the direction of Malcolm Robertson, one of the original directors of McNeil’s works.
Despite McNeil’s notoriety in the ’70s – he was released from prison 10 years early after the Australian arts community rallied for his release, won the Australian Writers Guild award in 1975, was married to actress Robyn Nevin and died in 1982 – Thompson admits he had never heard of him. “His plays had kind of gone dormant for about 30 or 40 years,” he says. “But when we started researching him this whole world opened up.
“His plays stuck out like a sore thumb – strong Australian men with a bit of sensitivity and warmth as well as humour.”
Both plays are directly related to McNeil’s experience of the Australian penal system. But instead of commenting on the nature of prison life, The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice are more telling in what they reveal about society outside the prison walls.
“I think [society] paints a picture of men inside prison as being quite two dimensional and we cast them aside,” Thompson says. “We get this idea that they’re a crim and nothing else.
“But his idea of a tough man has so many facets.”
Although the same stereotypes of prisoners still exist today, there were some elements that Thompson and McKenzie had to tweak for a 2012 audience.
“The old Australian slang – there were words that I’d honestly never heard of!” Thompson says. “We had to bring that a bit forward in time.”
See the article in its original context here.