Andrew Bovell is one of Australia’s foremost playwrights. His latest play, When the Rain Stops Falling, won the Premier’s Prize for drama in Victoria and Queensland. It was the talk of the Adelaide Arts Festival, its Sydney season sold out, and now it’s impressing audiences in Melbourne.
In his plays, Bovell embraces the philosophical and political concerns of the day. In the 1990s he wrote plays inspired by Aboriginal reconciliation (Holy Days) and unionism (Who’s Afraid of the Working Class), and now, in the 21st century, it is climate change that underscores his work.
When I spoke to him earlier this month, Bovell reflected on this. "I think to consider what When the Rain Stops Falling is about, you need to look at the time in which it was written, which is now. One of our major preoccupations, as a society, is our changing climate. There is a growing anxiety about what it means. The play is responding to that."
Bovell began his research into the subject of climate change by looking at extreme weather events in history. He came across references to the catastrophic "year without a Summer" — 1816. The eruption of a volcano in Indonesia disrupted Summer in the northern hemisphere and had devastating effects on crops. Bovell says, "That’s a great example of how we are connected. How weather in one part of the world will affect life in another part of the world. But, as I am reading this, there is a footnote to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein."
Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft and her husband-to-be Percy Shelley shared a house on Lake Geneva in 1816. They were stuck indoors due to the inclement weather, and, as has been thoroughly mythologised, they came up with the idea to write horror stories. Two of the greatest horror stories in western literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre, which launched the literary tradition of the vampire story, emerged from this Summer holiday.
Bovell continues, "Then suddenly I had a really interesting juxtaposition between extreme weather and creative endeavour. While one is an impulse of great destruction, the other is one of great creativity. I started to look, ‘Okay, when X hurricane was happening here, who was creating something wonderful here?’"
Of all the extreme weather events, it was a hurricane in the Caribbean that left tens of thousands dead that formed the most interesting connection for Bovell. "As a hurricane was taking place in the Caribbean, in Paris, Denis Diderot was completing his Encyclopaedia, which was the gathering of all the intellectual thought of the time. They were great contrasts."
A number of key artists were brought together by Brink Productions to create When the Rain Stops Falling. This included Bovell, composer Quentin Grant and Iranian-born Australian artist Hossein Valamanesh.
Bovell and Valamanesh sat down together and began asking each other questions like, "How do we feel about the world? What do we think is going to happen in the world? What is my history? What is your history?" Out of these discussions emerged the dramatic form.
It is unusual for set design to be part of the initial exploration of a play. Traditionally the writer creates the work first and then it is interpreted by the designer. Bovell says, "The look of the work emerged at the same time that the work was emerging. The play had a Quaker feel to it. Hossein was bringing a simplicity of the aesthetic to the work, which was really smart."
Hossein Valamanesh is better known for his sculptural works. If you visit Adelaide, you can see some of his sculpture outside the Museum or near the University of Adelaide library. Creating a set design was a new experience for Valamanesh. Bovell says "I was watching a man discover the medium as he worked. When we first talked about the idea of Uluru descending from the roof. I thought, ‘Ummm, don’t know. Don’t know if that’s going to work. Might be tacky.’ But it worked, and that’s because Hossein has a real control of image."
What has emerged from this process is a family drama that reveals itself over four generations. In When the Rain Stops Falling, Bovell deploys his trademark repetitions of behaviour and language to great effect. For instance the phrase, "people are drowning in Bangladesh", reappears throughout the play. The characters pass on their behaviour patterns and phrases through generations. They even pass on the name, Gabriel — until the final son, Andrew, changes it. Through the character of Andrew — which, of course, is also the name of the playwright — the play provides hope that things can indeed change.
Bovell says, "What I am wanting to suggest with the play, and I think it’s a tenuous idea, but it is there if you dig deep enough, is that once again human beings are in a position where we need to redefine our relationship to the earth we live in. We can no longer continue to live the way we have — which is to consume the resources of the planet in a way that sustains our economies. We have to do the deep thinking necessary to change that understanding of how human beings will be on this planet."
When the Rain Stops Falling does not conform to Australia’s infatuation with onstage naturalism. It takes the audience back and forward through time and place. We learn about the characters as parts of their future and their past are revealed. When events from their lives are played out, their behaviour and their choices become clear. Each character experiences a moment that allows us to sympathise fully with their angst. Each audience member I have spoken to identified with a different character, and was brought to tears at a different moment in the play.
Bovell continues, "This is why I describe the play as a melancholic work. Because melancholy — as opposed to just being ‘sad’, which it is not — melancholy is a state of deep reflection that precedes change. As soon as I understood that I started to feel a lot more hopeful about our capacity as a species to make the necessary adjustments to survive. "
Go here to find out more about performances of When the Rain Stops Falling.
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