MTC artistic director and chief executive Brett Sheehy said: “We wanted to keep employing actors – especially given their critical circumstances”. There are hundreds, if not thousands of online play readings being done by theatre companies around the world – but “we wondered if we could try something a little different”.
The MTC budget, especially right now, cannot stretch to a slick, professional filmed production. Sheehy said that “to even begin to compete in the Netflix or Stan space seemed ridiculous”. So they’ve come up with AudioLab, a series of audio dramas that roll out to subscribers from next month.
Among the first to be recorded is a collection of iconic speeches from Australian history, performed by Melbourne actors including Downey as well as Mark Coles Smith, who recreates Indigenous leader Jack Patten’s astonishing 1938 address at the Day of Mourning protest.
The speeches were chosen and directed by Petra Kalive.
“This is a period of incredible social change, people are challenged in all sorts of ways but there is very little great oratory to support us through it,” Kalive said. “I was thinking about other times in history where there have been periods of great upheaval – the early 1900s and the 1940s. And there’s a lot of inspirational oratory from that time.
“I was looking for things that would rally and charge people, make them feel positive about the future, even though it does feel dark at the moment.”
Patten’s speech, she said, was “rousing, clear and inspiring, and unfortunately so relevant” to today.
Downey delivers speeches by Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to Australia’s House of Representatives and the first in federal cabinet, and suffragette and social reformer Vida Goldstein.
She said she felt “terribly important and empowered” delivering the words.
“It wasn’t until we got into the rehearsal room that we realised the power of the words, the force behind them and the passion,” she said.
In her lifetime, she cites Paul Keating’s Redfern speech as “one of the most powerful and wonderful speeches ever given”.
“I think people yearn for that sort of language, and analysis, and educated thoughts,” she said.
MTC’s associate artistic director Sarah Goodes said now, in lockdown, with live performance cancelled, we’re being deluged with foreign culture. We know more about the history of the 20th century in the US than in Australia.
“We need to mythologise ourselves,” Goodes said. “We’re missing out on something really important.”
That said, Goodes’ contribution to the AudioLab series is a dramatised, serialised reading of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw – Goodes says she was drawn to its dark suspense, the power and claustrophobia of its language.
“Your imagination is so carried away,” she said. She loves the idea of Australians getting away from their desks and Zoom meetings and walking around, getting terrified.
In an age where an invisible virus has us all terrified, there’s a parallel to James’ classic ghost story: “the real fear in this story is in our minds. The real fear is what we do to ourselves”.
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age.