Tasmanian playwright Cameron Hindrum's play '101' was produced and performed in Launceston and Hobart in 2019 as part of a joint Blue Cow / Three River Production. It was directed by Hobart playwright and director, Robert Jarman. To promote the play on the eve of its launch, the pair chatted together at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart. The passages below offer a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
ROBERT JARMAN: We went searching for new work to produce, by Tasmanian writers. As a result, we're rehearsing and premiering Cameron's play '101' in Launceston and then bringing it down to Hobart. It's great, we're spreading the net around the state and having terrific cooperation between north and south theatre makers.
Cameron's play is about George Orwell's writing of '1984', a book these days so much in the ether. Apparently in the week after Donald Trump was elected, something like ten thousand copies sold in the United States, just flew out of the bookshops. This year is the seventieth anniversary of the first publication of '1984', so it's very much in the zeitgeist. Phrases like 'Newspeak' and 'Big Brother is watching' have become part of the regular lexicon of our relationship with the world, as has 'Room 101' where all the horrors of the world are contained.
Plays are interesting things, they're precious children. Unlike a novelist who works with editors and whose work is sent out into the world for readers to make of what they will, playwrights have to deal with intermediaries of directors and actors who sometimes take things in quite unexpected directions. Cameron, what on earth started you on the journey of wanting to write about George Orwell?
CAMERON HINDRUM: For my sins, I'm an English teacher. I've changed schools this year, but for the previous twelve years I taught at Riverside High School in Launceston. Every year my grade ten students would read 'Animal Farm', probably the book every teenager should read whether they want to or not. It's an important book, to my mind a superior novel in many ways to '1984' for the beautiful technique that Orwell employs in using farm animals to tell the story of the Russian Revolution in language made all the more powerful and impactful and memorable by its simplicity.
About three or four years ago I was searching the internet, digging up material on George Orwell to discuss with my classes, to get them inspired. I happened across the story of how '1984' came to be written, of how hot on the heels it was of the publication of 'Animal Farm'. Orwell had terrible trouble getting 'Animal Farm' to print, but it was finally published about August 1945. Three months or so prior, he'd lost his first wife — suddenly, she'd died during a routine operation — and not long before that, they'd adopted a little boy, Richard.
So there was George, with one of his books a great success and under pressure to do 'the next one', but at the same time grieving, with a little child to care for, and increasingly becoming quite unwell.
A good friend of his had access to a remote farm house on the northern side of the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland. Orwell decided to uproot his family and live more or less in complete seclusion to work on '1984', which would become one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century.
I thought, what a fascinating idea to explore! I conceived it as a piece of theatre, hammered out a draft, got on to the Cowshed, and here we are....
ROBERT Primarily as a writer, you're a poet. You've had one novel published and another is in the works. You work across a variety of forms. Have you found approaching Orwell's story as a play to be a help or a hindrance in the long run?
CAMERON I don't know, to be honest. Because I didn't try to write it any other way.
There is a very good novel, by the way, which came out about the same time as I was putting the finishing touches on the play — there's always someone who comes along with the same idea! — which I recommend, called 'The Last Man in Europe' by Dennis Glover.
But I hadn't played with it as a novel or any other form, for me it's theatre.
So as a novelist, playwright and poet, it's form and function for you I suppose. You find the form that fits the story and in this case it was
a play. Is there a
form that you prefer? Have you found playwriting rewarding?
CAMERON Playwriting's very rewarding. I'm actively involved in theatre in Launceston, and do a bit of acting every now and then. I trained as a drama teacher as well. Writing plays is such a different process, and one of the things I most enjoy about it is that you get to a point where you hand them over, as I've handed this over to you and the cast. Things are happening to it that aren't in the script as such — they're not written down — but you've mulled on it, and taken it in the direction you have. I find that really exciting. It happened with 'I Am A Lake', too — my first play. The way they came up with a design for the staging was fascinating, it's not something I'd thought of myself. I love the collaborative side of it.
Whereas novels of course are purely solitary, it's you, the empty page and the word and that's it.
ROBERT And at the moment there's a novel in the works?
CAMERON I'm hoping the novel is about ninety-five percent done. I'm completing a doctorate in creative arts, the problem is not the novel but the thirty thousand word thesis which goes with it which I'm struggling with a little ... I'll get there. The novel is based loosely on a cold case, an unsolved Tasmanian murder. In 1995 an Italian backpacker named Victoria Cafasso was stabbed to death on a beach on the east coast. As of today, no one has been charged over it, even though it happened on a crowded beach in broad daylight in the middle of the day. That's my starting point, and I'm bringing together multiple points of view looking at that as a catalyst for how people change within communities, and cope with grief.
ROBERT But you're primarily a poet. That's how I think of you....
CAMERON I like the model used by Philip Larkin, the English poet. His gravestone simply says, 'Philip Larkin. Writer'. He wrote poetry, but also a couple of novels, reviews of jazz albums, letters and essays. So if I am anything Robert, I'm a writer.
ROBERT There's a bit of a twitter storm going on at the moment around Alison Croggon, a Melbourne writer, theatre critic and playwright. She's recently published a book of her plays. I think that on the cover she simply refers to herself as a writer, but on twitter she said something like 'if anything I'm a poet of the theatre'. 'Oh there's no such thing as poetry in theatre,' somebody replied.
Well, you know ... Shakespeare? Tennessee Williams? There's a lot of poetry in the theatre!
And I find there's a lot of poetry in your plays, a great love of language there.
CAMERON Thank you.
ROBERT I was listening to one of the science programmes on Radio National last week, where I heard a fascinating conversation with a young Chinese scientist who'd done her undergraduate degree in China and then had gone to the University of Chicago to do her postgrad. She was born in the same year as Tienanmen, but though she'd grown up in China she didn't know anything about the incident. Over a cup of coffee with some friends in the cafeteria, someone mentioned 'the Tank Man', with whom we're all familiar from that famous picture of the man standing in front of that row of tanks. The Chinese girl asked her friends, 'What are you talking about?'
She later said, she was embarrassed because she had no awareness of the story which of course is so well known to us. She'd always known the news was manipulated, but hadn't realised quite the extent to which it was being manipulated within the People's Republic. And so, as well as being a scientist, she's now become quite an active critic of her government. The interviewer asked about the risk she takes in doing that: when she goes back home, is she at risk? Is there a risk to her family? In response to the question — and because I'm directing this play, her answer resonated with me strongly — she replied, 'Life itself is not risk-free. The existence of risk isn't enough of an excuse to not live one's truth.'
on your play '101' and looking at Orwell throughout the years he was writing it, the thing that strikes me is that he risked everything.
In the play, at least — and obviously the play is a heightened version of life — he risks his relationship with his family, he risks his health to
the point of almost killing himself.... He lays everything on the line because he has to tell his truth, and he'll not compromise on that.
CAMERON Well there's a very strong argument that writing '1984' is what killed him.
His sense of integrity developed from an early age. He always felt a compulsion to find the truth in things, and was famous for being absolutely objective in his reporting. If you've read 'Homage to Catalonia', his book about his participation in the Spanish Civil War, you'll be aware he was shot in the throat and almost killed, in 1937 or 1938.... The passage in 'Homage to Catalonia' where he describes the sensation of being shot — how it felt, and of what was happening to him — is just extraordinary for its absolute detachment. It's worth reading for that alone.
You'll find the same integrity in his literary criticism and essay writing.
ROBERT Orwell being shot is more or less the starting point of your play, though it's a long time before the action of the play begins. The incident resonates throughout the play just as it resonates throughout his life, a really powerful image because it's Orwell losing the power of speech. Of being silenced.
He also talks, at the time of being shot, of how quiet everything is. It's his primary sensation.
CAMERON Yes, he talks about it being very quiet, mentions how cold he felt — which is shock, I would say ... extraordinary things to focus on in those moments where his life is literally seeping away. It was a millimetre from his carotid artery. He was a heavy smoker and he'd stood up in his trench to light a cigarette ... smoking does kill! He recognises it's happened because he's a creature of habit. The way he switches off emotionally, and is able to journalistically and almost forensically relate it to a reader, is extraordinary.
ROBERT I asked you once, long ago, what the play was about, and without missing a beat you said 'fathers and sons'....
ROBERT .... which is the last answer I was expecting. Talk about that....
CAMERON Parenthood — within my vast and expansive body of work!!! — is a topic I'm deeply interested in. My children are growing up, they're both teenagers — one has nearly finished year twelve. God knows how that has happened, but it has! And I'm interested in that emotional dynamic, it's very rich territory for a writer to consider what goes on in the space between who you're supposed to be as the responsible adult, and who your children are as a result of that — and how they influence you, how it all pushes and pulls together.
Orwell being a single parent and having a little
child running around boils down the play to its real
essence for me, the
connection between generations. My version of Eric deals with his father as well so there are three
generations of parenthood at play.
ROBERT And there's the connection as well, for whom am I writing this? You'll remember that Winston, in '1984', started writing his diary ... which he knows is going to be found, knows is going to be destroyed and knows is going to be meaningless — so who's he writing it for?
CAMERON That was Orwell's big fear, his book was a wake-up call to shake people up. When people take absolute power, this is where it can lead you — don't let this happen!
ROBERT Yet it's interesting that the book has been embraced and used for all sorts of propaganda, on both sides of the political fence.
Coming out of World War Two and writing in the year of the birth of the Cold War, I think he was concerned there was a very real
possibility we'd end up in a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction, the big phrase being thrown around at the time — I suppose it's still
thrown around sometimes. That was his big fear and the fear of a lot of people — that we'd launch the bombs.
ROBERT One of my favourite moments in the play — it's subtle, I love it — is Orwell at the stage where he's written the book and sent it off to the publisher. It's going out into the world and is about to become the great dystopian novel of the twentieth and indeed the twenty-first century — an absolute phenonemon. Meanwhile at home, people are getting on with getting the eggs from the chooks, tidying up the barn....
CAMERON He left behind an incredible archive. All of his letters are published, his house diaries for years and years — which are mainly lists of what he was growing in the garden ... there's a running gag in the play about counting the eggs, he kept tallies of the eggs his chooks were laying. He mapped where he was planting his beans and his carrots. Shopping lists ... 'have to go to the shops tomorrow to get nails and fencing timber'. It's all mundane and seemingly very trivial, but it's a wonderful insight into what he was doing when he wasn't sitting at a typewriter.
He's a fascinating figure, very much a man of some contradiction and interesting to look at in terms of where he positioned himself within the political spectrum. He went to Eton, one of the most prestigious schools in England, and yet espoused socialism - an Etonian socialist, if such exists: he was one. He was a lifelong agnostic, and yet surprised even those closest to him, after he died, with the news that he'd actually completed a new will the week before which stipulated that he had to be buried in a country churchyard.... There's a scene in the play where they're standing round scratching their heads saying, 'Church? Are you sure this is right? Are you sure he didn't want to be cremated?'
Another of the things that struck me is the question of where imagination springs from. It's an extraordinary picture
Orwell conjures up.
CAMERON Oh, the world that he creates is fascinating.... Very detailed.
ROBERT Is it literally that he had a wonderful imagination?
CAMERON I don't know, to be honest. He didn't think he was any great shakes as a writer, certainly as a writer of fiction. I think he considered 'Animal Farm' to be the height of his achievement as a fiction writer.
There's a wonderful book called
'The Ministry of Truth' — actually a biography of '1984' — by Dorian Lynskey. One of the early chapters in that book charts the history
of dystopian fiction, leading into '1984' which is seen as a zenith of the genre ... even though I don't think Orwell himself ever
used the phrase 'dystopian fiction', or called it a dystopia. Maybe because he thought it was just a little too real, he didn't think it was all that
much of a stretch of the imagination.
ROBERT In the play, you have Eric / George speaking of the difficulties and dangers of writing a book. 'You constantly pull yourself away from its centre but it holds you, it draws you away from safety.'
CAMERON Yes, that's the process for me, it gets hold of you in a really weird way and doesn't let you go. A major concern for Orwell — who'd become quite sick and spent months on his back in a hospital room not doing anything at all: he couldn't sit up, couldn't walk, couldn't do anything but rest, so wasn't writing — was the need to get back to the book. Too long away makes everything dull, it loses its edge and its drive.
ROBERT And is that your experience of writing?
CAMERON Oh very much so, yes. It is all about discipline, you've got to be doing it every day. I say that, but I don't always practise it of course, which is why it took me ten years to write a novel — but it's really important to be thinking about it, having constant access to it, doing the work. You've got to turn up, as they say.
ROBERT There's an extraordinary story of Jean Genet, writing 'Notre Dame da Fleur', ['A Lady of the Flowers']. He wrote it all on scraps of paper because he was in prison. And it was confiscated — so he just started again, wrote the whole thing again.
CAMERON If you've a story to tell, you find a way to tell it.
Cameron Hindrum lives, writes and teaches in Launceston. He has published a novel and two collections of poetry. His first major work
for theatre 'I Am A Lake' was produced by Mudlark Theatre in 2016. His second play, '101' — about writer George Orwell — premiered in 2019. Cameron
is working on his second novel.
Robert Jarman is a noted director, performer, writer or designer (and sometimes all four!). Robert’s work has featured in all Ten Days on the Island festivals held to date. Wearing one of his many creative hats, he has worked with all major Tasmanian performing arts companies from the Tasmania Performs to the TSO, and Terrapin to TasDance. Nationally his work has been seen north to Cairns and west to Adelaide … he hasn’t quite made it to Perth yet. Along the way he has worked with Jute, Music Theatre Sydney, One Extra Dance, La Boite, Griffin, Melbourne Comedy Festival. In 2000 Robert was awarded the Federation Medal for his services to Performing Arts. His latest venture is as a co-founder and director of Hobart’s highly successful Blue Cow Theatre.
Ralph Wessman, May 2020