29/11/2014

The return of The King: Don’t Look Away’s The Legend of King O’Malley

The ‘legend’ of King O’Malley is as colourful as the man himself, and a cursory look over his Wikipedia entry will only confirm this. Born in the United States (or Canada) in 1854, O’Malley was educated in New York City, founded a church in Texas, and contracted tuberculosis before sailing to Queensland in 1888. Once recovered from his illness, he walked the 2100 kilometres to Adelaide, and eventually became a member of the first parliament of a newly-federated Australia, voted against the introduction of conscription in World War I, was instrumental in the creation of Canberra and the Commonwealth Bank and, when he died aged 99 in 1953, he was the last surviving member of the first parliament.
In 1970, Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis wrote – or perhaps devised – The Legend of King O’Malley under the direction of John Bell for NIDA. A burlesquing Faustian story, full of pantomime, vaudeville, revivalist preaching, Australian politics and music-hall turns, O’Malley is a rambunctious beast that refuses to sit still, rampages about the stage with its uncontainable verve and showmanship. A kind of predecessor to Casey Bennetto’s hit musical Keating!, O’Malley is here produced by Melbourne company Don’t Look Away at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald theatre, and is a sharp, irreverent and timely examination of the larger than life characters we seem to attract in Australian politics.
Directed here with energy, verve, and a “sense of ridiculous, eccentric theatricality” by Phil Rouse, it is an unabashedly full-blooded reinvigoration of an important moment in Australia’s theatrical history. Credited by Katherine Brisbane as the piece which gave “contemporary Australian theatre [its] direction,” O’Malley is still as pointed and as sharp as it was forty-four years ago, and it is a delight to watch this sprawling vaudevillian epic unfold. Rouse’s cast are tremendous, navigating the fine line between stereotype, parody and satire with ease and a deftness which beguiles and intrigues. As O’Malley, James Cook brings the right amount of audacity, self-belief and compassion to this larger-than-life figure, turning in an instant from snake-oil salesman to staunch member of the Labor Party with alarming verisimilitude. Described by Rouse as “a brilliant liar, a showman, a salesman, a scrapper, a man of great rhetorical gifts, and finally a man of great moral conscience,” the character of O’Malley is inseparable from his historical counterpart as the man used legends and a self-mythologising modus operandi to “achieve his political ends.” As Nick Angel, the Mephistophelian figure who haunts O’Malley, Alex Duncan is a smooth talker, elegantly dressed in waistcoat, tie and sometimes wig, and as he slips in and out of the scenes to narrate, beguile and taunt O’Malley, there is an undisguised delight in his performance which is totally mesmerising. The ensemble – Tara Rankine,  Brianagh Curran, Jessica Tanner, Andrew Iles, Oliver Coleman and Matt Hickey – are pitch perfect as everything from revivalist congregation members, to mermaids, members of parliament, soldiers, tap-dancing grim reapers and chorus dancers, and their energy and delight in the play-fullness of this play-cum-revue only makes it more enjoyable.
Boddy and Ellis’ script is packed with barbed political references, from everything to conscription to immigration and political allegiances, and it is even more remarkable at how apt it is forty-odd years later. Daniel Harvey and Zoe Rouse’s set and costumes are malleable and diverse, colourful and functional, furnishing the production with a panache which makes it hum and burst with larrikin glee. Sian James-Holland’s lighting is colourful, bright, crisp and has a similar verve and dynamism to Damien Cooper’s work in Keating!. Special mention to accompanist Tom Pitts who provides the musical backing throughout most of the show and keeps the drama in a perpetual state of motion and rhythm.
A bright and vibrant new production of one of Australian’s legendary theatrical gems, the return of this King O’Malley is not only welcome and timely, but exuberant and refreshingly unapologetic. “Rather than a reductive reproduction of Australiana iconography,” Rouse’s O’Malley is a cornucopia of thorny issues, big questions, big questions, and big personalities. In Rouse’s words, this is “history with high-kicks,” and it deserves all the attention it can get. In 1970, this was the production that spawned the creation of the Nimrod Theatre; here’s hoping, forty years later, this production will be the beginning of a new era of theatre-making, as thrilling, diverse, challenging, rambunctious, madcap and inventive as the previous forty.



Theatre playlist: 74. Get Ready For Love, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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