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The Age: Dreamers

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See article in its original context here by Cameron Woodhead for The Age.

Daniel Keene’s French play on racism, Dreamers, translates perfectly to Australian dialect

The European is an apt venue for coffee with Daniel Keene. He’s one of the two contemporary Australian playwrights (the other is Joanna-Murray Smith) best known overseas, and has an established reputation in France. That’s where Dreamers, which opens at fortyfivedownstairs this week, was originally commissioned. And that’s where it was first performed, by Toulouse-based company Tabula Rasa, in 2011.

This production will be its English-language premiere, and marks a one-off resurrection of Keene’s creative partnership with Ariette Taylor. Together, they started The Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, an independent theatre powerhouse that produced an impressive 47 productions over 17 seasons from 1997-2002 and has attained the quality of legend in the development of Melbourne’s indie theatre scene.


“The project started with short works, too short for traditional spaces,” Keene remembers, “We were desperate to find a venue and approached the Brotherhood of St Laurence warehouse in Fitzroy. It was full of donated furniture. They said we could use the place, but couldn’t move anything. So the audience sat around on tables and beds and chests of drawers, whatever was to hand, and the set shifted naturally from performance to performance as people would take stuff, and new donations would arrive.”

“No one was doing that kind of thing at the time,” he says, “and we soon had audiences lining up around the block to get in.”

The poor and the marginalised often appear in Keene’s work, and Dreamers is no exception. Keene’s brief was to write a modern response to two films – Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allowsand Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s homage to it, Fear Eats The Soul. Both portray love affairs between an older woman and a younger man, separated by class or ethnicity; the relationship encounters stark social disapproval.

It’s a confronting play that juxtaposes, in short sculpted scenes, the blossoming intimacy between two downtrodden individuals and the intense prejudice they face from judgmental neighbours, friends and family for pursuing an unconventional romance. Anne, an ageing seamstress, will be played by Helen Morse; Majid, her unemployed Muslim lover, by Yomal Rajasinghe, a talented young actor who came here as a refugee from Sri Lanka.

“I was confronted by how little has changed since those films were made,” Keene says. “The play was originally written for a French audience – French racism is focused on Africa, particularly migrant workers from Algeria – but it could be set anywhere. And it feels absolutely relevant to Australia today, unfortunately.”

“You have George Brandis running around saying people have the right to be bigots, Tony Abbott that the burqa makes him uncomfortable.” The playwright’s anger rises. “Of course, I didn’t know we’d have an unbelievably callous, racist, misogynist, criminal government in power when I wrote it … Lucky for me,” he adds sardonically, “Zeitgeist.”

The censoriousness and outright bigotry of the minor characters in Dreamers is bleak, almost Hobbesian, and astutely psychologised, erupting from powerlessness and fear. “Their sense of community has been ruptured,” Keene says. “They’re alienated and disenfranchised and victimise people slightly less powerful than themselves. Dog eat dog. And like most racism, their views are cloaked in nostalgia for an idealised past that never existed.”

But there’s a poetic completeness to the dialogue, even at its darkest, in this play, as it dredges latent anxieties, personal and social, to the surface; the sense of the unsayable, said.

Achieving a finished quality in an inherently incomplete form is one of the great paradoxes of writing for the stage, and perhaps lies behind the asinine discussion in this country about so-called “literary theatre”, Keene thinks.

“You should be able to appreciate a play as a piece of writing. It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. For me, it’s about handing it over to the director and actors to interpret in as polished a way as you can. Every scene should be a play unto itself. I mean, there are so many problems to be solved in the rehearsal room without having to rewrite the script.”

Keene confronted the tension between the collaborative, highly social aspect of theatre-making and the solitary task of writing in the most acute and productive way in his last project, The Long Way Home, where he worked with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, turning their stories into theatre.

“To be a playwright, you have to be a good listener – to the people around you, to the voices that you imagine,” he says. “The Long Way Home was challenging and fascinating because you had arty types on one side and military personnel on the other. We weren’t sure we were we going to get anything out of it and I’m sure they felt the same. We had to leave all our prejudices at the door.”

Dreamers faces head on the drama of people who can’t do just that – bigots who turn what should be a quiet story about an unusual love into a terrible (and regrettably pertinent) social tragedy.

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