It was called Rhetorical Questions and I wrote it as a two-hander in 1988. It was about a couple who were in crisis without realising it at first: the crisis was the play, which took place over just a few days, in which the wife nearly called for a divorce, then didn’t. I quite consciously wrote it for two very close friends who were (and are) both super-gifted, brilliant actors: Bridget Armstrong and Roy Billing. I was very much hoping they would read it for me, which they very kindly did, one day in Titirangi, Auckland, in the house where Bridget lived with husband Maurice Shadbolt.
I was bowled over by their reading (they can each be very funny, yet also very moving) but curious about the merits of the play: was it worth presenting to theatre directors? They both thought yes, and Bridget made inquiries at the Mercury Theatre. A young, talented director of the time was interested and said she would read it.
This was the year when I left NZ with my family to live and work in Australia. While we waited for the Mercury to discuss the play, Maurice read it and confided his thoughts to Bridget: he’d enjoyed it but it had a major flaw—the couple quarrelled over a mutual friend who cropped up in the dialogue but never appeared in the drama. I was very fond of Maurice and loved his work, especially Strangers and Journeys and his play Once on Chunuk Bair (Roy starred in its stunning debut). Maurice said, ‘You can’t raise expectations in the audience that you don’t fulfil.’ If he considered the play flawed, Bridget and I agreed it had no future. We said all this on the phone, on the evening before I left the country. I cried all night.
In Sydney, after a year or so I entirely restructured the play, bringing in some of the previously invisible friends, and it became a pretty hectic seven-hander with a different title. I sent it to the Belvoir Theatre in Surry Hills and they wrote back to say they'd like to discuss it. I replied with a thank-you letter and asked when we might meet—then heard nothing. Ever.
Why am I telling you this story? Is there a moral or a piece of wisdom to be derived? Possibly it’s this: if you’re a writer (or for that matter a publisher) you’re bound to have good friends who are writers too, or creative artists, or who belong to the theatre. If you love them, then you must also respect them when they give a sincere opinion. My experiences with that first play helped me immeasurably when I came back to writing drama much later, and Maurice’s reading of it was part of that experience, though I never discussed it with him then, or when we saw him on visits back to NZ. Meanwhile the greatest joy, that I’m so grateful for, was sitting in Titirangi listening as Bridget and Roy brought my characters alive. Unforgettable! No way would I ever stop writing after that.