Jane Bodie on Music and the burning urgency of This Year’s Ashes

Jane Bodie is someone who knows how to keep the plates spinning.

Jane Bodie Photo:  Sarah Walker
Jane Bodie
Photo: Sarah Walker

With three plays happening simultaneously across two states, one might expect a certain fatigue to be trickling down the phone from Sydney, but if anything, her London inflections reflect an energy and excitement about her current ventures.  These include two remounts, Hilt and This Year’s Ashes, and a world premiere Music opening at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney this April. Bodie is, suffice to say, a very busy person.

“It’s a great feeling”, says Bodie when asked whether such activity is gratifying or exhausting. “Someone said to me the other day ‘does that mean you’re rich?’ I had to say, no.” She laughs at the thought, yet there is no question that through her dedicated work ethic (fifteen plays and counting, alongside two feature scripts and a slew of TV work) and ear for authentic dialogue, she has accrued the valuable currency of critical acclaim around her literary efforts. Music, her latest piece, looks set to be one of her most challenging and personal works to date, exploring, as it does, the persistent stigma around mental illness.

The story, revolving around two actors coming into the orbit of a seemingly balanced and ordinary man named Adam, explores the consequences that can arise from inquiring too deeply into an individual’s psyche in the pursuit of art.

Asked what drew her into such apparently fraught territory – depictions of mental illness, after all, run the risk of either exaggeratedly glorifying a complex condition, or patronising its subjects – Bodie’s response is disarming in its straightforwardness. “I have someone in my family that has suffered a mental illness and I was very keen to represent it. I’ve seen mental illness in plays be used to explain away characters suddenly becoming violent, or doing things that are very unbelievable.”

Bodie is confident she has found the appropriate balance between truth and the necessary fiction that art demands. “What you try not to do is to expose the individual. You don’t want to mine someone’s personal trauma in order to put something on the stage.” Valuable feedback reached her through a colleague who offered an informed perspective. “We sent the play to the partner of an actor who I’ve been working with, who is a mental health nurse. He thought the portrayal was really accurate, so that really pleased me.” Perception, after all, is a crucial facet of both Music and of mental health. “It’s about the fact that people misunderstand it, and that in itself can become part of the illness.”

Jeremy Standford, Rosie Lockart and Daniel Fredericksen Photo:  Sarah Walker
Jeremy Standford, Rosie Lockart and Daniel Fredericksen
Photo: Sarah Walker

While Music opens in Sydney, Melbourne will be treated to the Victorian premiere of Bodie’s 2011 play This Year’s Ashes, brought to audiences by the independent dynamos at Red Stitch Actor’s Theatre. It is clearly a work that remains very close to Bodie’s heart. Written in the aftermath of a tumultuous move to Sydney and in the chiaroscuro of grief caused by her father’s death, it has been hailed by critics as “funny and stunningly lyrical”, The Irish Times, and by ArtsHub as a possible “new Australian classic”.

Described by Bodie as “a reluctant romantic comedy”, she says of the work that the last thing she wanted to do was use it as an opportunity to indulge in therapy. “I didn’t want to write a sort of guttural yell about my own grief, because its very exposing and potentially not enjoyable for anyone.” Consequently the play underwent a certain transmutation that, as seems to be the case with Music, sought to reveal authenticity out of subtle fabrication. “I went to Griffin and told them I wanted to write a play about a girl trying to understand cricket’, she says, “because my father was really obsessed with cricket and I used to try and understand it as a way to get closer to him”. It harmonized wonderfully with her fish-out-of-water experience of finding herself in a strange new city; “Sydney is like a different country”, she acknowledges, “very unlike Melbourne or London”.

For Bodie, who served as Head of Playwriting at NIDA from 2009 to 2012, This Year’s Ashes also serves as an exemplar of the advice that she has for new and aspiring playwrights. “People often say to write what you know, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Because then why aren’t you making a documentary or writing a blog?” Rather, Bodie stresses the imperative “Write the play that only you can write, the story that’s so burningly urgent for you to tell …This Year’s Ashes was that.’

Music opens at the Griffin Theatre on April 2, running until April 26.

This Year’s Ashes opens at Red Stitch Actor’s Theatre on March 19, running until April 19.

Hilt, presented by Mirror Mirror, runs at Venue 505 until March 30.

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