'I LOOKED though the newspaper clippings about you in the Herald
library,"I said to Garry McDonald, "is there anything you'd rather not talk
"I'm a bit sick of talking about Gunston," the actor said on cue. "It's
like ancient history - something I did 20 years ago and for three weeks last
The story has been told so often since that it hardly seemed necessary to
say again that McDonald, one of Australian television's enduring household
names, has been haunted by Gunston, the gormless-looking dag with the bits of
sticking plaster on his face whose reincarnation last year ended in very public
recriminations and a retreat caused by the performer's no less public nervous
So for the purposes of the interview, we laid Gunston to rest. "OK," I
said, "that's that."
Though the mobile face with the perpetually worried expression rearranged
itself a little, in a suspicion of a smile, it would be going too far to say
that Garry McDonald relaxed.
It may be going too far to suggest that he ever relaxes, this being a
bloke who can turn fishing, one of his hobbies, into something capable of
causing him actual angst. "Angst," was his word, not mine. "I get the angst if I
don't catch the fish," he said.
"But even my mate's like that and he's nearly professional. He writes
about fishing and does it on television ..."
"He doesn't," I said, imagining this to be a joke. McDonald often jokes.
But not about fishing on television, it turns out.
"Yeah, fancy having to catch a fish for the camera," he said. "And if we
have a fishing trip and we don't catch a fish ... you only get grunts out of
McDonald mimicked himself being inane, chirruping about the beauty of the
day, then mimicked his mate mumbling a monosyllable back.
The sprightly comedy was as characteristic of the conversation with him as
his quick wit. But the humour almost seemed to be fused with the signs of his
He was in rehearsal for the Sydney Theatre Company production of Hotspur,
a new play by Geoffrey Atherden, who wrote Mother And Son, the award-winning
television series with McDonald and Ruth Cracknell.
Created for them and first performed in Melbourne earlier this year,
Hotspur opens on Wednesday in the Drama Theatre of the Opera House.
Meanwhile the rehearsals were at The Sydney Theatre Company's home at the
Wharf Theatre, where we met in the recently reopened restaurant last week.
At lunchtime, on a bright blue sparkling sort of day, this luminous
setting at the harbour's edge might have been thought to inspire a sense of
contentment, however short-lived.
For his part, Garry McDonald had stopped rubbing at an invisible spot on
the table only to pluck at his skin and jiggle his feet. But he was talking
about the three months he had just had off. He and his wife, actor Diane Craig,
have a house on the South Coast. McDonald had managed to potter around the place
without being overtaken by a sense of panic, following a St Vincent's hospital
course that taught him some methods for managing his own intense anxiety.
At other times, even before the production of Hotspur in Melbourne this
year, he had rushed around trying to cram everything in, he told me, his voice
breathless and tight with haste as he played himself in his former state.
HE kept playing versions of himself, in fact. Watching him was a bit like
watching a computer-generated image changing shape in a series of shifts so
gradual that you noticed the fluidity instead of analysing the precision of the
But his fly-away gestures were there throughout the performance. If he
stopped pulling at his skin, he would put the dark sunglasses on his big beak of
a nose, take them off again a moment later and start rubbing at a spot on his
head, a series of twitches it was tempting to contrast with the absolute
physical rigour of his work.
He's like a singer in the control that he exerts over his voice, the
timing so accurate that he seems to have managed to calculate the exact effect
of every last nuance and every intake of breath. It's as if he extracts all
possible laughter from a barely perceptible pause.
Thinking of all he had done, over the years, from the comic roles for
which he is celebrated to a crew of repulsive characters and downright bastards
in plays like John Romeril's The Floating World and David Mamet's Glengarry
Glenross, I asked him what was constant in the work. I was wondering if a kind
of edginess ran through it - deciding otherwise, when I saw him rehearsing
Hotspur half an hour later.
But for the moment McDonald was constructing a routine out of my careless
question. The constant in his work was him, "this bald-headed guy," he said.
"But not in this play ..."
At long last he's going to be allowed to wear a wig that will give his
character a little more hair than he has himself.
"You'd think if a person that had your hairstyle was going to wear a wig,
they'd want a complete full wig," I said cautiously. "Had my," (and McDonald
paused for no more than a nanosecond), "hairstyle, that's very tactful,
It was about then that I must have asked him about being bald. What with
the lines furrowed on his forehead, his soulful brown eyes, pointy elf ears and
a nose large enough to be a landmark, McDonald looks as if nature prepared him
to be a comic. But did that make him any more philosophical about the lack of
hair (an absence some go on regretting as long as they live).
"... Being bald, am I used to it? Oh, just slightly."
McDonald, who doesn't laugh much, gave a strangulated laugh and polished
off a mouthful of gnocchi.
"Do you mean do I long to have hair?" he said.
"I suppose it's a bit like giving up smoking. One day you wake up and
think, 'I don't feel like having that comb in my hand any more ...'"
He paused for another split second. "It's saved me a lot of time," he said
in the tone of a man sharing the secrets of his success.
Hard as he is on himself, he has a gift for portraying characters suffused
with self-satisfaction. In Hotspur, McDonald as Freddy Brown, plays a former
millionaire and constant schemer. In the last act, which is what they were
rehearsing last Monday, he has a moment in which he twirls around, delighting in
his own cleverness. Seeing the actor do these few steps was like seeing
smugness itself made into flesh.
"He wants to know exactly how the character he is playing is
thinking,"Hotspur director Simon Phillips was to tell me. "What makes him so
clear as an actor is that he'll absolutely identify attitude, to work out at any
given moment where his character is coming from ..."
BUT in the big rehearsal room at the Wharf Theatre, things had come to a
halt for a bit and McDonald, dropping out of character and ambling across the
stage, thinking about something, had his mouth open and was waggling his tongue
from side to side, a gesture so bug-eyed and jittery I couldn't remember seeing
any other adult making it.
To anyone who remarked that it was strange for a person so prone to
anxiety to go into a nerve-wracking line of work like acting, he'd say - as he
said to me - "Look, anxiety hasn't got anything to do with the job you're in
I happened to have asked him if he worried that learning to manage his
anxiety would lessen his creativity and he looked at me as if he thought I must
be mad to ask such a question.
"I don't care," he had said suddenly almost shouting, "I don't care ..."