Aitken ~ Staging reflections
The literary history of a city is built slowly,
page-by-page. By the nature of their art, the key
contributors are usually invisible, while they quietly
observe and write ~ appearing to be the shapers
and changers of the culture only years later, in
We look back and remember playwrights, Shakespeare,
Chekov, Ibsen…but in the present we see
only stars and the odd noteworthy director.
Pacing the streets of Northbridge, snowy hair
billowing, airline bag firmly slung across his
chest, is a modern Perth playwright. ~ A prolific
writer who has worked on stages from Vienna to
Turkey Creek and publicly made an enemy of political
Few people seeing John Aitken striding through
Northbridge would guess that the airline bag was
full of notes, destined for BBC production studios
and the neat clipboards of stage directors around
A passing word, might leave you guessing that
he’s a plum-in-the-mouth POM full of scorn
for the crass antipodes. Another wrong impression.
John’s plays reveal a deep love of Australia
and its odd collection of people, he revels in
the differences between them and the sinuous threads
of commonality. He has made a career of translating
them into characters for the stage, blending people
with ideas and pushing always for the awakening
of a sense of social honesty and integrity that
goes above and beyond mere manners.
Born in Scotland, John spent his preschool years
in the UK. His father, a British airforce warrant
officer, transferred to the Australian airforce
after the war. Relocated in Applecross, John recalls
a “pretty fantastic childhood.”
“We used to see wild brumbies and kangaroos
as we walked through the bush to school and we’d
swim across the river in our birthday suits because
there was no one there to make a fuss.”
At Applecross Senior High School, he wrote his
first play and his class mates performed it. Inspired
and supported by English teacher Ted Styles and
by Colleen Clifford, a grand old West End actress
who drifted to Perth and set up a theatre, John’s
While still at school, he delved into the delicate
politics of the Fremantle waterfront and produced
a play. He was also set the task of writing a
nativity play for his final year’s performance.
Boys being boys, Marlon Brando and horror, were
the key inspirations ~ Herod was the perfect vehicle
for both, and was the first in a series of shocking
characters that have populated John’s plays.
With a mischievous grin he relives the moment:
“Herod was asked “What about the people?”
and he responded saying “I spit on the people”
and he spat on the audience. People were shocked
and disgusted and there was a great fuss made
After school, John drifted to Canberra and started
studying the classics before hopping into a friend’s
Vauxhall convertible on a passing whim and cruising
up to Queensland to work on the railway.
It was the mid sixties, two likely lads with
long flowing locks, leaving campus life behind,
the Beatles and the Rolling Stones blaring loud
as they toured the tiny towns that still vote
One Nation today ~ it was the year before Easy
Rider was released.
Railway building was a short-term passion. Before
long John was back in Perth opening a theatre
called the Colony Room in a basement in Northbridge.
There was no air-conditioning and the casts grew
far too fond of the Red Lion beer garden, but
the theatre survived for a good year before being
closed by the Health Department.
John moved to a Stirling Street, open-air operation
called the Hole in the Roof and from there he
choreographed Australia’s first “Happening”.
His first opening night audience arrived to find
the street closed off and men waltzing with shop
mannequins across the tarmac.
The play “Little Malcolm and his struggle
against the Eunuchs” was heretical ~ Union
Jacks were thrown in dustbins! It opened with
the opening bars of “God Save the Queen”
and the audience politely rose from their seats,
the music twisted itself into a Stravinski-esque
waltz and then a recorded voice screeched out
“Bugger the Queen!”
The first night notables, dutifully standing at
their seats, were shocked.
The play made front-page headlines.
As the ruckus blew over he drifted east again,
tramping the boards and managing stages in every
By 1969 he was back in Perth ~ the new young
stage manager at the Playhouse Theatre. It was
a busy time and it wasn’t long before he
was asked to start directing.
He luxuriated in the work of Arthur Miller, Tom
Stoppard and Edward Albee, worked under the guidance
of directors Barry J. Gordon and Edgar Metcalfe
and made friends with a young director called
Then came an event that changed everything. John
Aitken, age 24, won the inaugural Michael Edgley
Award. A $5000 scholarship, to travel to England
and study theatre.
He worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, made
the Royal Opera his second home and worked closely
with Joan Littlewood ~ creator of musicals such
as “Oh, What a Lovely War” ~ and her
musical collaborator Lionel Bart. They were heady
days, filled with the pomp and glamour of cutting
Two years later, John returned to Perth to oversee
the making of his first feature film. “Summer
of Secrets” won the Jury Prize and the Critics’
Prize at International Festival of Fantasy and
Science Fiction films in Paris.
After a spell with a government filmmaking unit
John returned to Perth to set up the Magic Mirror
Theatre, in a former brothel in Roe Street, and
again the plays performed included John’s
What keeps calling him back to the theatre?
John says: “New theatre is about finding
better ways to tell stories ~ it’s about
refining the way to communicate with audiences.”
He says playwriting forces him to tune into the
universal humanity. “If a play doesn’t
excite me or make me laugh or move me, I can’t
expect that this will happen to the audience.
I need to be aware, when I’m writing, about
what it is that I have in common with everyone
While still working with the Magic Mirror, John
was cast in a play by a company called the Winter
Theatre, rehearsing in an old dairy in Northbridge.
The cast members were an eager crew, but they
deemed their managing board to be incompetent
John became chairman and director of the Winter
Theatre and resumed his provocative mantle ~ upsetting
the Catholic Church with an American play about
an alcoholic priest.
Then came the 1980s and John wrote and produced
a spate of new plays, many of which toured the
state. They included “Authority”,
a play about a violent drunken policeman, toured
the north-west and did a few seasons in Sydney,
in the politically sensitive post-John Pat years
and “Watershed”, a play that questions
the C.Y. O’Connor suicide myth.
In 1993 with Australia Council and ArtsWA funding
he wrote, and the State Theatre Company of WA
produced, “Daisy Bates and the Dancer”
~ a play that again sparked a controversy.
According to John: “It had some wonderful
reviews and some very negative reviews ~ because
some of the critics here are rather naïve.
They assume that if a play has a racist character
in it, for the sake of the drama, then it’s
a racist play.”
His next play, “Music from the Whirlwind”,
was a pithy exploration of the relationship between
the oppressive Stalin and the revolutionary composer
It premiered as a one-man stage play at the Hole
in the Wall, toured the Eastern States and was
performed in Chicago. Perth actor Bill Dunstone
took it Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and India
and the ABC and BBC produced a radio version of
Why was a WA writer writing about a Russian composer?
John gets agitated. “We have spent far
too long tethered to our own backyard. No one
would ask an English writer why they were writing
about Mozart, but I’ve been asked over and
over again…it doesn’t matter where
I’m from, what matters is that this is a
play about the evils of political correctness.”
Flushed with passion he continues ~ “If
you have a funding body telling artists to be
politically correct, you will get sociological,
but not artistically interesting, work. Art thrives
on conflict and different interests. I never think
a play should be controversial for the sake of
being controversial ~ but we shouldn’t shy
away from controversy, at the time it may appear
to be too much, but ten years later it may seem
to be not enough.
After “Daisy Bates” John went North
himself and worked with Aboriginal groups, writing
plays about their stories and legends and taking
them on tour.
John flew out of the searing Kimberley heat into
the snowy middle of a European winter to take
part in the International Schools Theatre Festival
in Amsterdam. A journey that saw him present more
than 100 theatre workshops in cities across Europe.
John’s latest play, “The Song of the
Earth” is about Gustav Mahler and his wife
Alma, it is the second in a series of three, that
began with Shostakovich and will conclude with
He describes them as a series of plays about
elemental creativity ~ about people who gave up
everything on a personal level to create something
with the potential to change everything.
“The Song of the Earth”, named after
Mahler’s last great piece of music, debuted
on stage at the Octagon theatre last night (17-9-99)
and the ABC has commissioned a radio version of
Meanwhile, John’s latest crew, the Prickly
Pear Ensemble, are planning the performance of
Northbridge Tales next year. It’s play full
of characters and adventures from John’s
own past in Northbridge, heavily laced with drama
As an adjunct to the creation of the play, John
started taking groups of people for walking tours
around Northbridge last May, showing them some
of the places involved. The tours have taken off
in their own right, and John’s snowy head
and pointing finger now can often be spotted in
the midst of groups of foreign students, tourists
and social club members, in and around the history-rich
The living playwright ~ speaking, performing,
writing, producing. The magic mirror ~ showing
us ourselves creatively reflected.
Given his track record, it fair to wonder what
we’re in for next.