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Sun-Herald

THE ACTOR, THE COMIC

Author: ELISABETH WYNHAUSEN
Date: 15/10/1994
Words: 1345
          Publication: The Sun Herald
Section: News and Features
Page: 131
'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 about?"

"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 year ..."

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 breakdown.

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 him."

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 ever-present jitteryness.

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 process.

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, Elisabeth ..."

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 ..."

 
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