By CELINE SABAN-FRIEND
As Crowded House’s album Woodface softly plays inside Mario’s restaurant, Australian playwright Hannie Rayson recalls her extraordinary yet often ordinary life.
Dressed in all black, Rayson and I find ourselves matching, with the exception of her well-worn cherry red boots that put my sneakers to shame.
Rayson talks to me like an old friend, open and comfortable to share the good and the bad. She makes it easy to forget that she is not only a successful writer but a veteran of theatre.
With a career spanning more than 30 years, Rayson has written more than a dozen plays, including her most notable work Hotel Sorrento (1990) and Life After George (2000).
Not only have her plays been performed in Australia but in various countries, and languages, around the world.
They have received numerous awards including two Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, four Helpmann Awards, two NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.
While her list of achievements goes on, Rayson is humble.
According to her previous partner of 14 years and life-long friend, Jaems Grant, Rayson has always been that way.
“She doesn’t act, she doesn’t have a façade or anything, she’s a very open person,” he says.
Every morning at around six o’clock, Rayson walks her husband, historian and ABC Radio National presenter, Michael Cathcart to the ABC offices in Southbank.
She tells me she finds this to be a good way of acclimatising to the world before grabbing a coffee and heading to the State Library.
The library is often an escape for her. An escape from the often-solitary pursuit of writing and everyday distractions.
“There is a sort of loneliness factor that comes with being a writer and there is a part of me that likes, however pathetically, to be connected with people,” Rayson says.
“And the world can’t get me in there. It’s just me and my thinking.”
She tells me how in the days of working from home she would often fantasise about life as a business woman, life working 9am to 5pm.
“There were days when I’d be at home working and I’d be watching these women wearing their navy-blue suits and trainers heading to the bank thinking, ‘I wish I worked in the bank, I wish I was that person'," she says.
Rayson has always had a fascination with the seemingly ordinary parts of life and it has reflected in her plays.
Australian theatre director and devotee to Rayson’s work, Wayne Pearn agrees.
“Her work is a slice of life. She has this acute sense of how family, relationships and just how people work,” he said.
Now aged 62, Rayson is facing a whole new set of challenges associated with getting older and remaining relevant. The theatre company she co-founded in 1980 as a young art student, Theatre Works, is now one of the last remaining alternative companies in Melbourne.
Three decades on, there’s a new generation taking on the message that Theatre Works always promoted, to inspire the discovery, creation and love of theatre.
Each year Rayson grows older, she feels an increasing pressure to stay current. When it becomes too much, she often turns to her husband, and her fellow female writers for support.
“It helps that I’ve written before and certainly having a partner that’s been with you for a long time and knows ‘oh you must be at the halfway mark of a play because you are acting like this'," she says while chuckling.
“I write letters to a lot of other women writers around Australia too. That’s how I find a society for myself. They are my cheerleaders and we are cheerleaders for each other.”
As we neared the end of our chat, Rayson recited to me one of her favourite lines from the Walt Whitman poem, Song of Myself.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, [I am large, I contain multitudes],” she says.
Rayson treats this excerpt as a motto, reminding herself to not take things too seriously.
“I keep that alive in myself. Everyone contains multitudes and sometimes we only know one part of them.”