Joanna Murray-Smith on ‘fixing’ her best-known play Honour: ‘You have to make a judgment call’

The Melbourne playwright discovered that when it comes to gender equality, some things never change

When Joanna Murray-Smith wrote Honour 25 years ago, she believed the play had an in-built obsolescence.

The themes – ambition, sacrifice, infidelity, sexual control and the casual cruelty of youth – were, of course, timeless. But the way in which her four characters thrash out these issues, with all their inherent assumptions and contradictions, meant Honour would be a play that would have to remain firmly set in the 1990s.

So Murray-Smith believed in 1995. Revisiting her work for its revival in Sydney later this month, she realised Honour was still in many ways depressingly relevant.

“Women are still giving up their careers in order to support and nurture their husbands and their children, and middle age men are still leaving their wives for younger women,” she says.

“Perhaps all that has changed is the nuance: that women are a little bit more wise to what they are forsaking when they make these sacrifices.”

Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s best known contemporary playwrights. She’s won the Victorian Premier’s literary prize for drama twice (including for Honour), and was awarded a Commonwealth Medal for Services to Playwriting in 2000. Berlin with be her 25th play.

Honour’s first reading – in 1995 in New York – featured Meryl Streep in the role of Honor. Diana Rigg and Eileen Atkins have also starred, earning the latter the Olivier for best actress in 2004.

Now, in a feat few Australian playwrights have managed in their career, two Murray-Smith plays will open within days of each other in separate capital cities: Honour at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, and the Melbourne Theatre Company production of Berlin, which receives its world premiere at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre this weekend.

Berlin was inspired by a holiday in Germany with Murray-Smith’s teenage children. The family was struck by the omnipresent reminders of Nazi and Stasi Germany, through the museums and the thousands of plaques and monuments scattered throughout Berlin; a determined acknowledgement of a brutal yet not too distant past.

Grace Cummings and Michael Wahr in rehearsal for Berlin
Grace Cummings and Michael Wahr in rehearsal for Berlin. Photograph: Charlie Kinross/Melbourne Theatre Company

Berlin tells the story of a Jewish Australian backpacker in his early 20s meeting a young German woman in a bar. They go back to her apartment for sex and as the night progresses and emotions deepen, the shadows of the past begin to emerge.

“I wondered, how does it feel to be in your 20s in Berlin today, and wanting to embrace the national identity, as well as your personal identity, and feeling the weight of history on your shoulders?” she says.

“And would it be possible for a young German and a young Jew to fall in love in 2021, without feeling the weight of that history in the intimacy of their relationship?”

Honour 2.0: tinkering with a success

Since its Melbourne premiere in 1995, Honour has been performed in more than three dozen countries.

Laura Linney, who played the role of the young beguiling Claudia in the 1998 Broadway premiere, would today be cast as her adversary, Honor, whose husband abandons her for Claudia after more than three decades of marriage.

Over the years, Murray-Smith has had to regularly update the popular culture references in the play; Delia Smith has given way to Nigella Lawson, and it’s probably safe to say references to Bitcoin and Brexit were not in the original script.

“It’s always fascinating going back to an early play, because you have to make a judgment call about whether you preserve the play as an example of who you were at a particular time, or whether you continue to update the play, and allow it incrementally to become something new,” she says.

“And that’s very tricky … and not easy to do when a play is successful, because there’s always a part of you that wonders whether if you tinker with it, you’re going to mess with that success.”

Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith
‘There’s always a part of you that wonders whether if you tinker with it, you’re going to mess with that success.’ Photograph: Prudence Upton/Ensemble Theatre

Provided with the rare opportunity to sit in on rehearsals in the latest Ensemble production, Murray-Smith decided to take the opportunity to edit parts of the play that had always bothered her.

“I’m very rarely in that situation, because most [theatre companies] won’t fly me to the rehearsal room with a play which has already been done … so I thought I’d take the opportunity to fix the things that have always irritated me about play,” she said.

The result, she believes, is a Claudia who communicates more realistically, and an Honor who is more self-aware of what she chose to give up when she married George.

“I was 40 when I wrote that play,” she says.

“And I think that I imagined that a character like Honor would not exist in 2021. But here we are and there are still plenty of women like Honor; they’re still wrestling with the compromises they made earlier in their lives, and in fact, the young women I know … they’re still facing the same questions that Honor faced when she met George [in the 1960s].”

Contemporary playwrights like to think they are painting a portrait of the moment with words, delivering a reflection of the society they live in here and now, she says, where everything is in constant flux.

“But the older I get, and particularly when it comes to the world of human relationships and human frailties, the more surprised I am by how little anything changes.”

  • Berlin opens at the Melbourne Theatre Company on 17 April; Honour opens at the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney on 23 April


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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