LONDON Australian theater has never been big in London — or New York for that matter. But, suddenly, playwright Andrew Bovell has three major productions opening within months of each other in the world’s twin theater capitals.
“Speaking in Tongues” — his 1996 play, successfully filmed as “Lantana” — is in previews for its first West End run. His most recent work, “When the Rain Stops Falling,” a dazzlingly layered drama of five generations of English and Australian characters, was a hit earlier this summer at London’s Almeida Theater. And rising-star director David Cromer will helm a new production of the play Off Broadway for Lincoln Center Theater in February.
Bovell, 46, also has two movies on the way. His Mel Gibson starrer “Edge of Darkness” based on the BBC miniseries, will be released in January (Warner has the film in the U.S.), and he is finishing his British film adaptation of the sexually explicit bestseller “The Bride Stripped Bare.” He also co-wrote Oz director Ana Kokkinos’ “Blessed,” which just had its international preem at the Toronto Film Festival.
Was this flurry of activity planned? “Not at all,” observes a jet-lagged Bovell in his London hotel.
The “Speaking in Tongues” revival has been three years in development, with helmer Toby Frow attached ever since he directed Bovell’s “Ship of Fools” at London’s tiny new-writing venue Theater 503 in 2007.
Michael Attenborough read “When the Rain Stops Falling” about a year ago and knew from the moment he finished it that he wanted to program and direct the play at the Almeida.
“Andrew is absolutely meticulous, but what’s wonderful about his writing is not only the structural richness but the way in which he doesn’t allow the conceit of a play to dominate,” explains Attenborough. “He embraces true theatricality yet every character is fully three-dimensional. He’s great in the rehearsal room and talks about characters as close friends. An actor can ask anything and he’ll have the answer.”
Attenborough’s highly regarded production was significantly different from the Sydney Theater Company staging that opened a month earlier.
“But I had absolutely no complaints about it,” Bovell says. “It was in a smaller theater with a completely different sense of space. And it was interestingly darker in its mood. The English are a much more ‘indoor’ culture — it had a much stronger sense of rooms.”
The major difference was that although Bovell wrote the play for a cast of seven actors, all doubling, Attenborough persuaded him to clarify the drama by casting nine actors.
“One of the ideas of the play is that we carry the baggage of our family history whether we acknowledge it or not,” Bovell says. “That’s exemplified in the way the actors double across generations. But Mike (Attenborough) and David Cromer argue persuasively that the arrival of new actors brings energy to the play.”
In other words, Bovell is not precious about a sole defining interpretation of his works. What’s clear is how carefully considered his writing is. Yet his command of structure comes at a cost.
“I was faster when I was younger, but I’m not very prolific now,” he says. ” ‘Rain’ is the first play I’ve written in five years, mainly because I got caught up in the film industry.”
Bovell’s first notable credit was writing the original screenplay for Baz Luhrmann’s debut “Strictly Ballroom.” But it was “Lantana” that opened Hollywood’s doors.
“I’ve done the big Hollywood thing and been baffled by it,” he says. “I enjoyed the ride, but wondered what I was doing there. I’m not really comfortable writing film. I do it, but the work of mine that’s been most successful has tended to be based on my plays. It was such a relief to come back to the theater. Rules are so much stronger with film; there’s a strictly set paradigm. Theater writing is more liberating.”
Why does he think so few Australian writers have broken into Europe and beyond?
“We write in the same language, so we’re competing,” Bovell offers. “I would imagine the U.K. has the richest writing culture in the English-speaking world. So why do an Australian play when there are so many writers here? But when theaters recognize something of value — and this is the same in New York — they immediately find a place for it. And a really interesting bunch of younger Australian writers has been working in London — Tommy Murphy, Ben Ellis. I hope it’s easier for them.
“I grew up in South Western Australia, where it’s 300 miles between towns,” he adds. “I think it’s similar in the U.S. that the provinces produce interesting writers because it’s so incredibly boring out there! At the same time it can be profoundly beautiful. We’re drawn to the metropolis and find we’re outsiders. We’re hungry, wide-eyed and learn a lot quickly. But we have a very different take on the world.”