The Other Dickins

Catch the worldwide premiere of Gert and Bess at Theatre iNQ's rehearsal space from 9-19 November. IMAGE: Gert and Bess (detail) by Barry Dickins

“At 67 years of age, I still work with the same identical passion for invention that I understood was at the heart of theatre when I started to write in my twenties. I don’t feel old – I just look it.”

Barry Dickins began writing early in life and, with over 50 plays under his belt along with a plethora of short stories, essays, children’s books and more, is showing no signs of stopping.

The Melbourne-based playwright’s latest work will premiere in Townsville after being written for local group, Theatre iNQ.

“I have never worked with Theatre iNQ before, but was thrilled to accept a commission to write something completely new that had been in my conscience for a while,” Barry said.

“In discussions with this company, I felt honestly uplifted and assured that a tale all the way from West Preston in Victoria would have resonance up in Townsville because the audience would know the stage characters instantly, intimately, and the dialogue spoken by my ancestors would feel genuine and inimitable.”

Barry is best-known in the industry for works based on prominent historical figures, such as Remembering Ronald Ryan (1994) featuring the last man to be executed in Australia. However this play, titled Gert and Bess, centres around Barry’s own family.

“Gert and Bess are the real names of my father’s mother, Gertrude, and her favourite sister Bess who often stayed at my Grandmother’s home in Melbourne. Sometimes I too stayed with them on school holidays – and although they were very honest, hard-working and dreadfully kind to me as a little boy, the atmospherics of the tiny home seemed fraught with a sort of bad temper which I didn’t understand: my mother and father were so temperate and loving towards my young brothers and myself.

“The artistic inspiration for this play comes from the need in me to preserve the workingclass language of the time, paying attention also to the manners displayed where the cooking and sewing and hopes and wishes and scrimping and saving kept the little home alive and kicking.

“It is the way my ancestors spoke that drove the manuscript; I had to be inscrutably sincere and honest in the way the two sisters joked, exaggerated, quarrelled, insulted and crushed each other. There once was a saying called ‘bad blood,’ used to describe sibling rivalries where one is capable of wounding the other in a matter of seconds and chaos reigns due to a shattered heart or a shattered recollection that descends in flames.”

The passion and soul Barry has invested in this work is evident. Why, though, pass the premiere of a story so close to his heart and based in Melbourne’s outer suburbs over to an unknown team based in North Queensland?

“Trusting the premiere to this talented group was to do with their sense of excitement in new projects and the love of invention in the theatre.

“I was involved in a week-long workshop in Townsville with Theatre iNQ where the manuscript was pulled apart with great vigour – if the play was a car and not a hundred sheets of writing it would pass a road worthy certificate at any Townsville garage!

“I was present at the first table read and it really hit home to me that I was fortunate to be their interstate guest and fellow writer, and the two women playing Gert and Bess were giving that first reading all the heart and soul they were capable of. I honestly felt redeemed.”

Catch the worldwide premiere of Barry Dickins’ Gert & Bess performed by Theatre iNQ at their rehearsal space on Allen Street from 9-19 November. Click here for tickets.

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