Bottomless by Dan Lee
23 November, 2018
Sitting on Smith Street in Collingwood, actor Jack Charles and playwright Dan Lee are sharing horror stories from their days of addiction. Charles, as famously depicted in the 2008 documentary Bastardy, was a heroin addict and burglar and spent years sleeping on the streets where he’s now a community elder; Lee was an alcoholic who drank until he blacked out, sometimes waking up in alleyways like the one beside the old-school Greek cafe where we meet.
He has come to in pub toilets after being punched out, in the lounge rooms of sympathetic strangers, and occasionally to the strains of conversations he’d rather not have heard. “In the lock-up, several times. In the Fitzroy flats, where guys were talking about guns. Once I woke up in Sydney. I’ve slept in all the parks around here. There’s nothing worse than waking up in a park to the sound of children playing,” Lee says, wincing. Charles has a chuckle, and agrees.
There are many places around Melbourne that stir uneasy memories for Lee, although he can’t quite frame them. “Lots of places around here are … haunted,” he says. “That’s the same for me of course,” says Charles. “It’s a good word for it, ‘haunted’.” They’ve both been drinkers at some of the city’s early openers, and can have a laugh now about such places. But their easy friendship wasn’t forged in those days; it’s sobriety that bonds them.
Lee, who ran the Northcote Storytellers events during those drinking years, experienced a minor epiphany about four years ago after watching a documentary about Charles called Bastardy – which its subject credits with helping to turn his life around. Charles’ journey galvanised Lee – who began writing his debut play, Bottomless, while getting sober – to meet the man with such a stirring redemption story. “I thought, I have to talk about my drinking, I have to hold on to it, and to own it,” he says. Lee was lucky – his wife, singer Missy Higgins, had Charles’ number.” Charles found it easy to say yes to working with Lee, on both the script and as an actor in the play. “Were it not for Missy, my global trip with Jack Charles V The Crown would never have eventuated,” he explains. Higgins stepped in after Charles was initially denied entry to Britain because of his criminal record; she alerted then arts minister Peter Garrett, who convinced the British to change their minds. “Missy heard my plaintive cry,” says Charles.
Based loosely on his own experiences of getting sober, Bottomless is set in Broome, where Lee sought refuge – several times – from his drinking life. “I’ve done a lot of what drunks refer to as ‘geographicals’,” he says. “I’d change my address, my friends – everything except the booze. You think if I just change everything else … but then you get there and discover you’ve brought yourself with you. And you can’t outrun that.”
Charles, too has done his share of geographicals. He went to Western Australia to appear in Jack Davis’ production No Sugar, largely to escape the reach of Victorian police. But having arrived there with no “gear”, he was about to ask to be put back on a plane, when he ran into an old friend who “helped” him out. He relates strongly to Lee’s play, which takes place in the local prison, across the road from the “sober up centre”, which “promises temporary reprieve from the tightening cycle of ‘blackout’ drinking”. During one of his stints in the west, Lee found himself newly sober and suddenly in charge of the local meetings. He says he was “terrified”, but the experience proved pivotal. “Suddenly I was going into hospitals and the prison, talking these raging alcoholics into stopping drinking and I was was like, wow – I’m not even sure myself. But it was the trick; it’s what did it. I wouldn’t even be here, had that not happened,” he says.
Most of the inmates he was talking to were Aboriginal and Lee was acutely aware that it was audacious for a white, privileged man to be taking this role. “As bad as things got for me, I could get a job, I could get a house – these guys aren’t going to get that stuff by virtue of the way they look, and their prison background,” he says. “Really, what these guys needed was a local Aboriginal person that they could look up to.” Charles agrees: the catalyst for him was a program in prison run by Aboriginal elder Auntie Lorraine Peeters.
“Sometimes it takes a program like that, delivered by Aboriginal people, to actually work. From that moment on I left that jail intending to make my community better. That’s what I’m doing now with the Archie Roach Foundation,” he says of the work he does connecting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander prisoners.
While the sense of place is integral to Bottomless, at its core is a universal story – that addiction can strike anyone, from any community. Lee says “it goes to some really fraught places”, but he hopes it will provoke conversation. He describes the work, which centres on a character called Wil, as a dark comedy, part Beckett, part One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. “I’ve tried to create a visceral experience for the audience of what it is like to live with daily alcoholic blackouts.”
Bottomless won the RE Ross Trust Script Development Award in 2014, and has been supported and developed by Red Stitch theatre company (where Lee has been an artist in residence), MTC and QTC – but until now he’s struggled to find anyone to stage it. It’s been made possible now with the help of crowd-funding through the Australian Cultural Fund. “The main-stage companies can be pretty conservative – they’ll put on Chekhov because they know what they’re dealing with,” he says. “There are … issues around the nature of the play – it’s dealing with some extremes. It’s a political play whether we want it to be or not.” Alongside Charles, the cast includes Julie Forsyth, Mark Cole Smith and Mark Wilson. Lee says “there have been many discussions and much workshopping”. “Once people see it, they might understand why it’s taken so long to get it on,” he says. “But the writing has gone through a series of trials and tests.” “We’ve been acting as a sort of Blackfellas Sans Frontieres,” adds Charles, with a laugh. “I have a long history of failure,” says Lee, “so I really wanted to get this right.”