Michael Gow gets a bit autobiographical

‘Drama is the thing where you make up a really appalling situation so that you can overhear people going through it.’ So says Michael Gow, playwright of Once in Royal David’s City, which runs at Belvoir from 12 February until 23 March.

Michael Gow gets a bit autobiographical


As the play came to the end of its first two days of previews, he explained what moves him to write.

The play is a ‘teeny bit autobiographical’ as the protagonist, Will Drummond (played by Brendan Cowell) finds himself by his mother’s bedside in northern NSW, suddenly facing the death of loved ones.

‘It’s a nice tension,’ says Gow, ‘between what Byron Bay is supposed to be about—the chill, the calm—and what the play is actually about.’

‘I like the “let’s make it up” thing about theatre. It’s that sharing what people do on stage, either verbally or physically—or hopefully both—which reflects what existence is like.

‘Ever since Aeschylus wrote, we hear [from our characters] “life’s hard but let’s keep going”. That’s what I find exciting about theatre.’

Despite certain attractions about cinema, Gow is circumspect about writing for film.

‘In the time it takes to get one film out, you could have written five plays and got them all on. Whereas you write one script and two years later they tell you no, there’s no money.

‘I like being a writer and doing that literary work—and the collaborative bit at the end where you get to sit with actors and work on the production.

‘I like the public nature of theatre; I like being in an audience.

‘You can sit in a cinema with nobody else and have a great time, but being in a theatre with 300 people listening and watching, I find really rewarding.’

Gow, who was involved in saving the Nimrod theatre building in 1984, has had a long history with Belvoir.

‘I’ve had quite a few things produced here and they’ve pretty much all worked!’ he said, with an element of surprise.

However, it’s not a surprise to theatre-goers who have enjoyed Gow’s work for decades, including the 1986 multi-award winningAway, described as a modern classic of Australian theatre and one of the most performed Australian plays.Toy Symphony, his 2007 (and most recent) play before Once in Royal David’s City, also premiered at Belvoir and won several awards.

Gow has not only been a writer, but also a director, including a 10-year stint as Artistic Director at the Queensland Theatre Company until 2010.

So it’s that understanding of both roles that allows him to establish an arm’s length attitude during rehearsal.

‘You have to just trust the director. The key is getting to know the director before you even say yes to a production.

‘I’ve known Eamon [Flack] for quite a while and have admired him—so I don’t have any anxiety about “That’s not what I meant!!”.

‘With Once in Royal David’s City, I’ve just been to a few readings and the first week of rehearsals.

‘It’s been very collaborative—and I don’t feel at all anxious beyond the usual neuroses that writers have before opening night.’

And after opening night, Gow doesn’t stop there—he has a bit of work to do before he can retreat home to northern Queensland.

He is about to direct The Magic Flute for Opera Australia’s regional touring program, for which he has just completed the English libretto—and is in the throes of meetings and wardrobe fittings.

This is his second directorial role with the company, having directedDon Giovanni two years ago, and revived it last year.

‘We’re doing Opera on the Beach with the Flute, at Greenmount Beach on the Gold Coast in May for three nights.

‘Then back to Melbourne to rehearse the touring version, ready for taking it around the southern half of the country this year, and the northern half next year.

‘Then I’ll just go home—and stare at the green.’

It may be a long time between plays for Gow, but he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with in Australia’s performing arts calendar.