Tom Davis is an Australian playwright and the writer of The Faithful Servant, set to have its world premiere opening in September. The Faithful Servant is Tom’s fifth full play, and the second to be produced by The Street Theatre, the first being the critically acclaimed The Chain Bridge in 2015. Both plays were written with the assistance of The Street’s Hive playwriting program and First Seen performed readings seasons.
Two of Tom’s earlier plays were produced in Melbourne: Last Tango in Brunswick (2000), a kaleidoscopic work about love, sex and heartbreak, and After the War (2002), which explored the battles faced by WWI Australian nurses who returned home to become second-class citizens.
Tom has a PhD in political science and has worked in the foreign aid sector for twenty years and as a lecturer, researcher and consultant in international development and public policy.
Image: Lorna Sim
Tom Davis talks to The Street ahead of The Faithful Servant season.
WE LAST TALKED WITH YOU BEFORE THE OPENING OF THE CHAIN BRIDGE LAST YEAR. THE FAITHFUL SERVANT IS YOUR FIFTH PLAY AND THE SECOND TO BE PRODUCED BY THE STREET AFTER A TWO YEAR DEVELOPMENT PERIOD. TALK US THROUGH YOUR ORIGINAL VISION AND THE JOURNEY TO GET TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY.
I really wanted to write a play about what it means to be good. Not only is it a foundational philosophical question, it is also the preoccupation of a lot of theatre … but, interestingly, often in the negative, i.e. Why has this character become “bad”? Why have they fallen? My original idea was to look at a Canberra public servant and how goodness becomes warped when serving popularly elected masters. Over the course of the first draft it became clear that, interesting as Canberra civil servants are, I was more taken by the moral question of how Australians respond to the “the other” that are the global poor. Our combination of enthusiasm, guilt and unintentional paternalism, combined with inevitable cross-cultural miscommunication, often gets in the way of us seeing the poor as fully rounded beings. What makes this intellectually and dramatically fascinating is that we do try, through aid NGOs, for example, to make empathetic connections with the distant poor, but usually fail. The dramatic question then becomes, if such distance can’t be bridged just by a donation, having an emotional response to an advertisement or clicking a social media “like” – and I should know, I’ve tried all three – then how is it bridged? The play’s tag line provides part of the answer: It’s not easy being good.
WHAT RESEARCH DID YOU UNDERTAKE TO INFORM THE THEMES IN THE FAITHFUL SERVANT?
I have worked in the foreign aid sector, in a variety of ways, for around twenty years and a number of the play’s themes have been informed by that experience. I’ve also been talking with Mozambican-Australians here in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia about their experiences of walking between two worlds, as well as the cultural and linguistic traits that are specific to Mozambique. One of the reasons I was interested in Mozambique as a setting for at least part of the play was the fact it is so foreign to most Australians, including myself. As a former Portuguese colony it doesn’t have the British Commonwealth links Australia has to places such as South Africa and Zimbabwe. For most Australians it is very much “the other”. Interestingly, Mozambicans are very aware of the Anglo-sphere because they are surrounded by former British colonies. It’s for this reason they all learn English, to some degree, at school (and this in addition to learning Portuguese and their local language!).
THEY SAY, ‘WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW’. HOW MUCH STOCK DO YOU PUT IN THAT? IS THERE AN ELEMENT OF YOUR REAL LIFE EXPERIENCE IN EVERYTHING YOU WRITE, OR IS SOME WORK PURE DREAMING?
The Faithful Servant draws on a little more of my real life experience than The Chain Bridge, but there is also much dreaming mixed in there. I think “write what you know” can be over-emphasised. I write to know. If I already know something, if I have few questions about it, then there is little impetus to write about it. All my writing seems to start from something that I’ve been thinking about or feeling, but then quickly becomes a journey toward understanding how others feel and think. Play writing can be an act of empathy; it’s ironic, therefore, that a key theme in this play is about the difficulty in being genuinely empathetic.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE EXPECT WHEN THEY GO TO SEE THE FAITHFUL SERVANT?
This is a big play about big ideas. The staging is both visually astounding and emotionally complex. The playing space stretches all the way from the back of the main stage into the third row of the auditorium, with the audience sitting up on the stage on either side of the performers. In this setting they will be taken from Australia to Mozambique, from the present to the 1960s, and back again. The action flows from scene to scene with great speed and precision. There’s video, singing, dancing and hospital operations! It should be great ride for audiences. They’ll think and feel (and laugh and cry!) in equal measure, and, at the end of the play, will be asking themselves questions about their own goodness.
YOU HAVE OPENED UP ROLES FOR AUSTRALIAN-AFRICAN ACTORS. ASIDE FROM THE SETTING IN MOZAMBIQUE, WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT TO YOU AS A PLAYWRIGHT?
African-Australians are a growing community in Australia and are becoming part of our national ‘story’, but we don’t often see actors from that community in complex roles on the stage or in film/tv. While I didn’t undertake the play specifically in order to provide such roles, it became apparent early in the writing that two African-Australian actors would be required. This production has been particularly blessed with the way Tariro and Dorian are able to bring their experiences of returning to Zimbabwe and Cameroon respectively to their interpretations of Mozambique-Australian interactions. And, in the end, this mix of worlds is the Australia we all live in, I want to see it represented in the creative work our culture produces.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
I’m a little obsessed at the moment with improving my craft in respect of three of the basic technical aspects of playwriting. The first is the relationship between text and sub-text. I’m exploring how fast you can keep the underlying dramatic action moving even when what the characters say hardly ever relates to that action. The second is the relationship between a character’s immediate objectives in the beats (or sections) of a scene and their super-objective over the arc of the play. How to ensure those two are wound tightly together and are mutually supportive? The third is the relationship between the play’s narrative and then what it’s really about – not just its themes, but also the vision of the world that it embodies. I’m suspecting the trick with this last is to not let the narrative get in the way of a good play, but it’s still a bugger of balance to achieve. Anyway, there’s a lifetime of work in getting better at all three.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I’m busy finishing one of Elena Ferrante’s Naples novels at the moment. I love the way she uses simple language to draw the reader deeply into unfamiliar worlds. I always need to decompress after reading one of her books. And I’m trying to get as much Canberra theatre as I can, which isn’t as much as I’d like, given I’m the parent of a four and a half year-old. I just recently attended one night of the Short and Sweet festival. A great idea and there are clearly writers in Canberra with some chops.
THE LAST WORD: TOM, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WANT TO SAY TO ARTISTS, CRITICS AND FANS?
The Chain Bridge was a very successful production and is a piece I am proud of. I think The Faithful Servant is a better play. Come and decide for yourselves!