“It’s the only play of mine that hasn’t been done,” says Reg Cribb when we meet to discuss the staging of Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River. “It’s a very big, ambitious, sprawling, epic play, being done in a very small space, the Griffin. So that’s a challenge straight up. That challenge excites me.
“The origins of the play go back to six or seven years ago when the Melbourne Theatre Company [MTC] commissioned me to write a play,” Cribb continues. “I had this crazy idea of setting a play on the Darling River. Because I had just heard a Radio National podcast with Phillip Addams… he was interviewing people on the Darling River about life… And all I knew was I vaguely wanted to write a play that was set on the Darling River. I’m the kind of guy, and I did the same thing with my play Last Cab to Darwin… I write plays that really should be films, first up, because they’re road movies, they’re journey movies, they’re set in big cinematic landscapes…”
The WA native had dabbled as a musician and actor before he settled on playwright. He had been part an actor in the theatre company Pork Chop Productions in Sydney, with Jeremy Sims, a fellow NIDA graduate, who encouraged all of the company members to write. After an attempt called Night of the Sea Monkey which Cribb claims taught him how not to write, a personal incident returned him to his home.
“I went back to Perth because my brother had died in an accident,” Cribb tells us. “And my whole world was thrown into flux, and I didn’t really think I was going to continue in this industry, I didn’t think there was anything happening in Perth. But I went back there in a very bleak, dark frame of mind. And I just started writing. And The Return came out of me. A couple of thugs on a train terrorising these people, pissed off and angry at the world. And all these sort of social issues came up in the play. It won the first Patrick White Playwright’s Award and I got myself an agent. So everything came out of that play.”
The Return was later adapted into the film Last Train to Freo, which marked Jeremy Sims’ film directing debut. Reg Cribb followed up The Return with the play Last Cab to Darwin, which Sims adapted into a film last year. Staged and toured in 2003, the play featured Barry Otto and Jacki Weaver (in the role that Emma Hamilton plays in the film). “Not many people know this but Jackie Weaver wasn’t really getting that much work then,” says Cribb about the now dual Oscar nominee, who repaid them in spades by taking a role in the film adaptation.
And now comes Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River. “I crafted a story about a farmer whose wife runs off with her aboriginal farm worker. The farmer journeys down the Darling River with a shot gun. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do. He just wants to find his wife and this man who was once his best friend. It’s a landscape play, it’s a memory play, it’s a surreal mad play…”
This story was inspired by Cribb’s stay in literally the back of Burke, near Mildura on the border of NSW and Victoria. “I often just go and find stories,” says Cribb. “I think playwrights can be a bit lazy. They can tend to go ‘let’s just set it in a room; a couple of people having a mid-life crisis; couple of middle class academics.’ It’s not my thing. I prefer to get out there to get the story.”
Although they initially optioned Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River, the MTC pulled out of staging it, and that’s where Sydney’s Griffin Theatre – which staged Cribb’s play The Return way back in 2001 – stepped in. “It kind of sat there and I was going, ‘I really love this play’ but everyone was a bit scared of it,” admits Reg Cribb. “Theatre companies these days, eco-rationalism bites deep, everyone wants two and three handers, they want little compact pieces, so they were a bit scared by the epic nature of it. Director Chris Bendall, who used to run the Deckchair Theatre in Perth and who’s now in Sydney, loved the play and had this dream of doing it, and finally got the rights to do it in the Griffin.”
After all this experience in the film world (which also included adapting Bran Nue Dae for the screen), how does Reg Cribb feel about treading the boards again? “I do enjoy the fact that you have a lot more artistic license as the writer in the theatre and it starts with you. We do live in an era now which is much more director driven theatre, and you don’t want to start me on that one… However I do love doing film, film is mostly what I do now. And theatre is a delight to get back into.”
Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River is on at the Griffin Theatre from January 13 – 30. For more information and to book tickets go here.