The rebirth of ‘The Doll’ at its theatre of origin

History and future come together with a new staging of Ray Lawler’s iconic play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at the new Union Theatre

Petra Kalive, University of Melbourne and Xanthe Beesley, University of Melbourne Student Union

Petra KaliveXanthe Beesley

Published 28 September 2023

The premiere of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by the Union Theatre Repertory Company (URTC) in 1955 was a seismic moment in Australian theatre.

This iconic play, which debuted at the old University of Melbourne Union Theatre, not only left an indelible mark on the nation’s cultural landscape but also reshaped the trajectory of Australian drama.

The cast of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, 1955. Picture: Melbourne Theatre Company

Rooted in larrikin culture, mateship and urban life, it struck a chord with audiences starved for authentic Australian stories on stage.

Now, as we present this play at the University’s new Union Theatre in the Arts and Cultural Building, we’re provided with timely reflections on notions of legacy; of this great play, of the place it was first performed, about culture on campus and the way we have changed as a country.

The journey begins with the history of student theatre on campus, which evolved from performances at residential colleges in the 1930s to the opening of the Union Theatre in 1938.

John Sumner’s tenure as its manager starting in 1952 marked a turning point, as he saw an opportunity to use the time when the venue wasn’t activated by students to establish a full-time professional theatre company, the Union Theatre Repertory Company (UTRC), which later evolved into the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1968.

This transformative era represented a departure from staging foreign imports in favour of celebrating the Australian experience.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – the tragic story of the neglected fractures in relationships after seventeen years, set in Melbourne in the summer of 1952 – was met with thunderous applause and signalled a hunger for Australian narratives rich in vernacular and authenticity.

It was not just nationally significant but also gained international recognition.

John Sumner (left) and Ray Lawler. Picture: Melbourne Theatre Company.

Today, with an expansive and complex canon of Australian literature, the play’s enduring resonance is remarkable. Olive, a central character, personifies nostalgia for an idealised past, mirroring contemporary society’s yearning for simpler times amid rapid change.

This connection makes Olive’s character and the play’s themes more pertinent than ever.

Just as the play reflects the past, the venue – the new Union Theatre, also echoes shades of another time when industry and student creativity sat side by side.

The programming in the new Union Theatre is shared between the Student Union (UMSU) and the University. This production of The Doll brings alumni from the University to work with current student actors and first-time designers to learn from their experience.

The Union Theatre is a critical space – a place that’s helped shape the history of theatre in Australia. Writer-director Malcolm Robertson argues that the Union Theatre “must assume in the annals of Australian theatre a pre-eminence that would be difficult to be superseded by any other theatre in Australia.

“It has been a crucible for the development of the performing arts in this country.”

This project brings that history into the brand-new venue. With Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, not only do we celebrate the legacy of Australian theatre, but we also hope to inspire new generations of makers, actors, writers, directors and backstage teams to become involved in what theatre can offer.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, 2012. Picture: Melbourne Theatre Company

The community on campus has been nurtured over decades. This play was a historical milestone; its legacy and the often-overlooked iconic status of the Union Theatre intertwine to provide an opportunity for today’s voices to interpret the work.

Current students – through this production and engagement with the Union and Guild theatres – walk in the footsteps and legacy of the students who have become influential arts workers and cultural influencers since the Union’s inception.

At its core, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a narrative about identity, nationhood, and belonging, intertwined with the motif of sugar, emblematic of Australian identity.

By staging it today with this new generation of artists, nearly 70 years after it was first written, we are prompted to confront that nostalgia, history and the selective memories of the past.

We are asked to unearth untold stories, question our collective blind spots, and engage with the legacy of our nation’s identity. The past and present collide, inviting us to reflect on our own flawed legacies and the narratives that shape our future.

And just as the 1950s marked a period of cultural dynamism in Australia, we are living through a similar transformation today. As we grapple with issues of identity, belonging and resistance to change, the play’s portrayal of characters unwilling to face the future resonates deeply.

The term “wilful blindness” becomes a pertinent question for us: What are we deliberately ignoring or refusing to accept in our quest to preserve the status quo?

WATCH: The new production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is directed by Petra Kalive with movement direction by Xanthe Beesley. Video: Supplied

Reimagining the first ever Australian play the URTC performed in the Union is not only a nod to the performing arts legacy of theatre at the University, but it also holds a mirror up to today.

This production of the play asks important questions while paying homage to a time in our past, it engages today’s students and artists in conversations about our wilfully blind history, the relevance and resonance of a canonical text and our changing national identity.

We hope this production, and the satellite works devised by the students and inspired by The Doll, demonstrate how the Union Theatre looks forward to a future as equally influential as its past.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is presented by Union House Theatre (UMSU) and runs from 3-7 October 2023 at the Union Theatre, Parkville Campus.

Banner: Newspaper photos of the 1955 production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll/Melbourne Theatre Company

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