Life after George: You'll laugh. You'll shout. You'll cry

Reactions to 'Life After George' can be extreme, warns Caroline Baum
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The Independent Culture

It's 15 years since an Australian play had a West End run in London, but that doesn't make Hannie Rayson nervous. The writer of the award-winning play, Life After George, which opened last week at the Duchess Theatre, is confident that while she's flying the flag, her themes are universal. In fact, the topic at its core – the impact of economic rationalism on universities – should make it feel right at home in a post-Thatcherite nation, where the consequences of a user-pays mentality are still reverberating through the entire society.

But Life After George is not a dry discourse about tertiary education. Rayson has won prizes and return seasons around Australia not simply for challenging an ideology, but for making the subject human, emotional and intellectually passionate. "I was amazed at the extent to which people cared so profoundly about the issues; they clearly felt their core values were being undermined and they showed it by crying, and, most surprisingly, by talking back to the play. On any night in the theatre you could hear loud gasps, sobs, people shouting out 'That's right' – it was like being at the panto!" recalls Rayson, unable to repress one of her characteristic giggles.

The play is also a great vehicle for actors, with meaty roles for three women and a charismatic man. As soon as Producer Michael Codron had acquired the rights, he had no trouble in persuading Australian expatriate director Michael Blakemore to take on the production; Blakemore in turn had no difficulty in attracting Stephen Dillane to play George. Cheryl Campbell and Joanne Pearce are also in the cast.

The George of the title is both lecturer and letcher – he advocates sexual freedom and political radicalism. He marries three times, swapping each wife for a younger model. When his widows come together to bury him, they look back on the life of a man who infuriated them, but who also inspired them. "Audiences were really polarised in their response to George," says Rayson. "I myself was in love with him, so it came as a rude shock when people found him loathsome because of his philandering or his politics. I just loved his huge appetite for life. I didn't judge the womanising – I felt I wanted him to work through the 'It Girls' of his generation. I don't think there was anything malicious to it, he was just selfish and curious, always wanting to know more. The women in the play are the map of 30 years of George's evolution."

While the first wife, Beatrix, is a gentle soul with a bohemian spirit and the mother of George's daughter, she is essentially conservative. More challenging is Lindsay, the second wife, a student radical who rises up the ranks within the university. She is chillingly efficient (particularly in a very funny scene in which she completely takes over the organisation of George's funeral). Rayson says, "She's used feminism to fuel her personal ambition."

Poppy, the third wife, is, says Rayson, "an inappropriately young PhD student, a cyber chick who edits a zine. She's post-modern and has no radical heart." Or at least not until the climax of the play, which prompts her to do something seriously subversive.

The tone of the play is one of passion and vehemence. What came as a surprise to Rayson was the fact that it made people laugh. "I didn't set out to write a comedy, but people laugh at the bitchiness between the wives. I think that's because until now, the portrayal of women has been hidebound, because male playwrights have been too scared to tackle feminism."

Rayson, in her forties, is old enough to have experienced the Sixties and Seventies, the formative decades in George's political evolution. "I don't view those years as trite, the way it is fashionable to do now. I genuinely believe that was an empowering time, and that we had real purchase on the democratic process. Yes, there was naivety, but there was also optimism and faith about making a better future. Now it's the era of the end of politics and we are all so disengaged from the process," laments Rayson. The playwright, who lives in an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, campaigned vigorously against some of the most right wing reforms of Jeff Kennett, the Premier of Victoria. "I just don't accept that the economic paradigm is the only one that matters," she explains.

Although George is her most successful work to date, breaking all box office records in Australia for a locally written work, Rayson is no newcomer to the theatre; as well as her previous award-winning works, she's had a film made of one of her plays, Hotel Sorrento, her work has been translated and performed in Japan, and read at the Comedie Française and she's also written several award winning episodes of Australia's favourite TV drama series, Seachange. But she didn't let the deadline for her next play, a dynastic exploration of Australia's rural crisis, prevent her from attending the London premiere of George. Now she hopes that he'll seduce his audience yet again and take on a new life.

'Life After George', Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (020 7494 5076) to 15 June