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Underneath Mother’s House

I have of course read all of Norman’s plays, and soon after he passed away, discovered other unfinished performance texts on his one and only hard-drive that his daughter kindly gave to me. A treasure trove of Norman’s inimitable writing!

I had read Flat Out Like A Lizard over 10 years ago, as Norman had performed a few excerpts from the work at a going away recital in 2011 for our then CEO of TAFE Queensland. It seemed like the perfect work to do for Robert The Cat’s second production.

The text contains 10 short tales narrated by the mysterious Lazarus White. Throughout his story telling Lazarus is continually interrupted by what appears to be a committee of experts critiquing his writing. Who are these people? A government arts board? A publishing house? Lazarus’s own inner critic? His therapist? His parent?

It doesn’t really matter, other than they all seem to be saying the same thing, that the writing is too dark, too confusing. And no one wants to read this kind of thing!

This is the most autobiographical work of Norman’s. I would be very interested to view the work as a dramaturg who hadn’t known Norman personally, looking at the text afresh. He has certainly provided the directors and creative team with a performance text that can be interpreted and framed many ways! For me, knowing him and hearing his many personal stories over the years, has helped me to understand and find my way around this intriguing text. There is a recurring line spoken by Lazarus throughout the text and directed to the audience:

‘Got it worked out? Followed it so far? Have we?’

It is both a taunt and a challenge to audience and creatives alike!

There is no denying that there is an underlying violent tone to these stories, and at the centre, a woman in danger, but to understand Norman’s intent in creating these uneasy and sometimes disturbing pieces of text, I have been informed by some of the stories and thoughts that Norman has shared with me over the years.

Norman adored his mother, who he described as ‘a very strong woman’. Norman would often share stories about her and her close circle of friends when he was a boy growing up in Nambour in the 1940s. As a very young child, he would crawl under the family house and position himself on his back directly under the kitchen floorboards. Above would sit his mother and her friends on a weekly basis, confiding in each other, and chatting about the affairs of the town. Some of the stories were chilling. What inspired Norman as a writer was how the experiences of these women were kept secret and hidden behind closed doors. There were no support groups, and domestic violence was not a subject of conversation in the wider community, as it has become today. When I read Norman’s plays, I can see how these strong women he speaks of have informed his writing, how they survive as individuals, or together in solidarity when faced with adversity.

Flat Out Like A Lizard was originally written to be performed by Norman himself. As the central character of Lazarus White the storyteller, and as a man, it was important for Norman to bring stories of danger out into the light.

For our staging of the text, Lazarus White, storyteller extraordinaire is played by 5 actors, 3 female and 2 male. It’s important for us that these stories are voiced both by women and men as the characters navigate tales of predators and prey, of seduction and isolation.

We are of course always wondering to ourselves what Norman might think of what we are doing with his text? We hope and think he would like it, and I remember how humble he always was when it came to his writing, and how very supportive of our creative work.

A stanza from the text:

Lazarus White:

I can’t speak!

Before I speak I have to know where I am.

I have to recognise myself again.

My life; my stories.

I have to set them in order.

It’s hard to see them again.

Hear them.

by Lisa O'Neill

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