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Sunday Age

Survival of satirist the

Author: John Mangan
Date: 11/04/2010
Words: 1860
Source: SAG
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: Extra
Page: 12
Garry McDonald has enjoyed the gags-to-riches dream of comedians everywhere  and lived to laugh another day, writes John Mangan.

THERE was a clip on The Footy Show a few weeks back showing young AFL players being asked to name five Australian Prime Ministers. While everyone could name Kevin Rudd, many had already forgotten John Howard, let alone such prehistoric PMs as Keating, Hawke, Fraser and Whitlam. More than one suggested Jeff Kennett.

Garry McDonald saw the clip when it was repeated on the ABC political program The Insiders and had to ring his wife, actress Diane Craig, who'd also been watching it. "Oh my God!" says McDonald theatrically. "It was horrifying! Are they that out of touch, do they take no interest at all?"

McDonald, who plays the lead role in the Melbourne Theatre Company's latest production, The Grenade, claims a similar anonymity with the younger set. Despite being one of television's most recognisable faces since he cracked up the nation with his Norman Gunston character in the 1970s, despite his role as the downtrodden Arthur Beare in the ABC's seminal comedy Mother and Son, despite his Order of Australia and his Gold Logie, he says people don't really notice him now.

"You do get used to being made a fuss over in restaurants and things like that, but you've got to be on television quite a bit for that to happen," he says. "I get a little bit of [recognition] but the younger ones don't know who the hell I am."

As it is, apart from such diversions as being the subject of Paul Jackson's Archibald Prize People's Choice winning portrait in 2007, McDonald has been busy indulging his first love, theatre, bringing his well-honed comic talents to a string of roles in Melbourne and Sydney over the past decade in such plays as Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, David Williamson's Amigos and Hannie Rayson's Two Brothers.

In the past couple of years he has been in the MTC's The Hypocrite and a production of Guys and Dolls, as well as touring the play, Halpern & Johnson, with Henri Szeps.

In between commitments he lives in Berry on the NSW south coast with Craig, who he met in 1971 when, at the tender age of 21, he played her middle-aged husband in the play Let's Get a Divorce. He's also been spending a lot of time lately commuting to Sydney looking after his parents.

"Mainly what I get when I meet people is, 'You haven't been on television for a while'," he says brightly during a lunch break in the MTC's rehearsal rooms. "Actually, what I've been getting lately is, 'You don't look any different!' That's the joy of being bald when you're very young! It takes ages before you start to look different, and the hair's only just starting to go grey now."

His new work, The Grenade, teams him up once again with MTC associate director Peter Evans and writer Tony McNamara. "Tony writes neurotic characters for me because, I guess, obviously that's my schtick," McDonald says.

McDonald plays government lobbyist Busby McTavish, a forceful figure who doesn't mind making enemies  not unlike, say, Graham Richardson or Brian Burke  who discovers someone has placed a live hand grenade in his living room.

"It's about people who use fear," McDonald says. "They try and get the better of people all the time by making them bend to their will."

The character is a far cry from the conflict-phobic hippy dad McDonald played in the film The Rage in Placid Lake, which McNamara wrote and directed in 2003. McDonald linked up with the writer again two years later at the Sydney Theatre Company when McNamara wrote The Give and Take with him in mind.

For McDonald, comedy is a serious business, and he thrives on the writer's black sense of humour. "I love working with Tony's stuff. It's hard. Tony's stuff is hard. You read it and you think, 'Oh, this is so funny'. But then you get up and you perform, and you think, 'Will I do this fast, will I do that slow?' Oh, it's hard."

McNamara, for his part, loves the actor's spontaneity and professionalism. "Garry is one of the true comedy and acting greats of this country," he says. "He's so good at keeping comedy and really high tension without losing the character. He just brings an incredible instinct and intelligence, a kind of genius," says McNamara.

"He's in a position where he could be doing ego trips but he's never like that, he's very humble. The text is the first thing for him, almost more than any other actor I've worked with, the text is where we start. He might suggest problems, but he's very gentle."

Henri Szeps, who played the jovially scheming brother in Mother and Son, and will rejoin McDonald later in the year for a another tour of Halpern & Johnson, says working with him is like putting on a pair of favourite shoes. "We know one another's timing, we have a good sense of what the other is thinking and how to support that, in all the tiny variations that happen from performance to performance.

"He has such a brilliant and off-beat sense of humour. During rehearsals he is mercurial, spontaneous. He's nuts. There's that giggle just beneath the surface ready to erupt.

"Don't tell him I said this," Szeps confides, "(but) he's incredibly generous. He will lift heaven and earth to help the other actor's gag-line work. I think that was one of the important ingredients between us that helped Mother and Son work so well. All of us knew exactly what was required to set up that laugh and there was enormous generosity in doing so."

Geoffrey Atherden's writing in Mother and Son, McDonald says, taught him the importance of the script. "When we were doing it you just had to respect the text. They had spent so long working on those scripts getting them right. You couldn't come in umming and ah-ing, changing lines. You couldn't add gags. If you tried to reinterpret something to get a gag in, they'd say, 'Oh no, that's not what the story's about'. That was my major training, I reckon."

While TV made him famous, McDonald says in some ways theatre's longer rehearsal processes suit his technique. "I'd like to be doing a bit more telly or film work next year so I can spend less time away from home, but I find it easier to create a performance out of rehearsal, that's the trouble.

"Film and telly, it's a different type of acting. I'll go too far [playing a character] and I've got time to bring it all back. I work in a very strange way. It's a bit hard for some of the other actors because a lot of them don't work that way, but comic actors tend to work back to front unfortunately."

It's all explained in a book by English actor and director Maria Aitken, he says. "I'd seen her workshops for the BBC, she did a workshop on high comedy and I thought, 'That's great, that woman's actually nailed everything where comedy's different to drama. A lot of acting teachers tell you there's no difference, or it's all about slipping on the banana, but that's bull."

One big difference, he says earnestly, is that comedy needs a slightly different, higher energy level. "And it's all about  all about  subtext. It's what we don't actually say that's funny. We're saying something, but meaning something else.

"For years I'd tried to work like other actors and I couldn't, and I'd wondered what was wrong with me. Aitken said comic actors instinctively know where the joke is, they get it immediately on the first read through, and then they work backwards. Then they have to fill in all of the gaps to make that joke work.

"Whereas other people start with nothing and build a character. But if you do it that way in a comedy, and you build your character, you haven't actually taken on board the whole shape and where you fit in. You've got to know where you fit in."

As McDonald knows only too well, labouring over characters has its dangers. He draws a parallel with the neuroscience experiment in which subjects watch a fake hand being pricked with pins at the same time that their hand, which is concealed from them, is pricked with pins. Then, when they see the false hand threatened with an axe, they flinch, even though rationally, they know it's the false hand, not theirs, that's being threatened.

"All characters affect you a little bit. You say, 'Oh, it doesn't affect me', but of course it does."

During his very public battle with depression, the beyondblue board member withdrew late in the piece from the STC production Howard Katz (directed by Michael Kantor) in 2003, where he was cast in the role of an aggressive, depressive salesman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "It wasn't the fear of going on stage," the actor explained at the time. "It was the character. I identified very heavily."

Nothing, though, has deterred him from acting. The trick is derailing the attacks by spotting the warning signs. It was the same with Norman Gunston, he says. "If you play a really emotional role, it starts to get you down after a while, or a really unattractive character. Norman was such an unattractive character."

His role as George in the MTC's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (2007) was another test. "He was such an unpleasant man, but he really loved that wife of his. That was really a love story in the end, so that got you through. I can't think of any character that really affected me as much as Norman did."

Norman also cruelled McDonald's chances of playing a bigger role in Picnic at Hanging Rock, which came out just as Norman was getting famous. In the test screenings people started laughing in the wrong places when his character, Constable Jones, appeared.

"So most of my stuff got cut out. I had one very funny scene, but unfortunately it was too funny!"

For all his faults, Norman did pioneer the immersion style of comedy favoured by Sasha Baron Cohen's Ali G and Borat, and set a high bar for The Chaser's political ambushes.

As well as a number of Norman's celebrity interviews, YouTube has immortalised his presence on the steps of Parliament House on the day of Gough Whitlam's dismissal in 1975, trying to fire inane questions at Bob Hawke (unsuccessful) and Bill Hayden (successful).

Not everybody's forgotten the past prime ministers, or Garry McDonald. A few years ago, when he was in the Canberra thriller Two Brothers, he was invited to the launch of a book of political speeches. "A young fellow came up to me, would've been 21 or 22, and said to me, 'When you were at the dismissal, how could you do that, how could you bring yourself to do that?"' McDonald shrugs his shoulders. "I said, 'I'm a satirist'."

The MTC production of The Grenade premieres at the Arts Centre Playhouse on Thursday.

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