I was in Sydney for Thanksgiving. A long way to go for a bite of turkey!
Over 10,000 miles, in fact, but I’ve been working on Transport - a musical - with Thomas Keneally of Schindler’s List fame, and had the opportunity to do a workshop of the piece Down Under.
Keneally was inspired to write the book on account of his wife Judy's great-grandmother who was transported to Botany Bay in 1839 for stealing a bolt of cloth in Limerick.
It was a riveting experience to collaborate with new directors and a cast on a piece so central to the Australian psyche; to tell the story of four young Irish women sentenced to penal servitude who ultimately went on to create a new country.
And what a country Australia is. At times it takes your breath away - a mixture of opposites, the familiar and the strange.
Tom Keneally is emblematic of the place. Educated by the Christian Brothers, a wonderful writer with deep roots in Irish literature, he has a rare and uncanny facility for creating fully fleshed women characters. However, just when you think you have him nailed, he slips away from you for he sees the world through uniquely Australian eyes.
You could say much the same for Sydney. The churches and bank buildings might have been lifted straight from Dublin or London, and yet instead of granite or limestone they’re hewed from a dusty red sandstone that gleams oddly in the harsh sunshine.
When you visit The Rocks – the equivalent of New York’s rowdy 19th Century Five Points - you can almost hear the bustle and boozy banter of freed convicts creating an alternative culture to their conservative English masters and jailers.
The two traditions have only recently, and uneasily, coalesced; scratch the surface and you’ll find a caustic rebelliousness beneath the tanned skin of most Australians.
The country is booming, largely because its mineral resources are in demand by China; nor has it been scarred by recession because its well-regulated banks were unable to behave like casinos as happened in the US and Europe.
Sydney actually felt like Clinton-era New York. One almost expected to see Bill and Hil gliding by on surfboards such was the sheer optimism in the air.
A cautious understated people, Australians however were not trumpeting their good fortune; rather they seemed content with their lot, much in the way that we were back in the 90’s.
Yet there’s a definite “can-do” feeling in Sydney. It was ricocheting around the theatre the first morning Keneally and I walked in.
The actors and musicians had 18 new songs to learn and a whole script to flesh out onstage in five days. A tall order to my mind, but they seemed, if anything, under-whelmed by the task ahead.
Sure, they had their problems in the course of the rehearsal process but they never doubted that they would come up with the goods.
Contrast that with the “Super Committee” in DC charged with reducing a small chunk of the US deficit. Given the self-imposed strictures on revenue raising and reducing benefits, was there ever a chance of success in an environment that has been poisoned by lobbyists, ideologues and a scavenging 24/7 media?
Don’t get me wrong! Australians are no saints: their politicians are raucous and self-centered, and yet they’re able to agree to disagree and ultimately come to a consensus for the general good.
It used to be that way in this country and, with a bit of luck, it will be someday again – but not until we turn away from televisions and computers, take off the headphones, look each other in the eye, and seek common ground.
Australia was inspiring. It reminded me of how we used to be a decade or two ago. And on the last night of Transport, as the audience gave a standing ovation to the cast, the thought struck me that if four chained and destitute Irish women prisoners could go on to create a great country, then why can’t we come together and do the right thing by ours?