At Bennelong Point on Sunday afternoon I was happily anticipating the inaugural session of the Sydney Opera House Talks series, an important addition to Sydney’s cultural landscape. One of my favourite contemporary creative minds, playwright Tom Stoppard, was billed as being “in conversation with” Andrew Upton, another playwright and also co-Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company from 2008 with his wife, Cate Blanchett.
It was a joy to see Stoppard in person, talking to a sold-out Opera Theatre about his creative process and the diverse joys and challenges of working in the theatre. He described the actual writing of a play as less arduous than coming up with an appropriately dramatic idea in the first place, and referred to the “happy accidents” that occur when the playwright allows his material to breathe life into itself rather than trying to impose a series of predetermined choices upon the material from “outside”.
For the Opera House series, I suggest future Talks need more focus and a sense of “housekeeping” at the beginning. Upton referred in his introduction to several points he was planning to raise with Stoppard in their conversation (research, for example), which never developed. The audience was not told in advance of the format: Stoppard came on stage after being introduced, then stood centre-stage and talked, and talked, and talked. Because it was Stoppard his speech was of course engaging, but I kept wondering why he was standing in front of Upton, who seemed to have nothing to do except scribble on his notepad while waiting for Stoppard to finish. Then after half an hour Stoppard sat down beside Upton and their conversation began, only to be interrupted fifteen minutes later when a third party – in the completely charismatic form of Geoffrey Rush – appeared on stage and took the now three-way exchange in an entertaining but tangential direction; namely, Shakespeare in Love, the film which Stoppard co-wrote and in which Rush acted. It was about ten years ago, and a tenuous link at best to spend so much time discussing in a forum which I expected (perhaps wrongly) to focus on the craft of writing plays. I would have happily paid money to hear Geoffrey Rush speak of his experiences as an actor, or even to read the phone book, actually; but I felt that I had paid money to hear Andrew Upton and Tom Stoppard discuss plays and adaptation, and I didn’t quite get what I paid for.