How 'insecurity and fear' stopped The Man In The Attic being performed

Multi award-winning playwright Timothy Daly – best known for the international hit Kafka Dances – was reading through an obscure book about German radio plays in 2007 when he was suddenly "astonished".

Surely this story couldn't be true?

Timothy Daly: "Theatre is a very small market here, jealously guarded, with a lot of insecurity and fear."

Timothy Daly: “Theatre is a very small market here, jealously guarded, with a lot of insecurity and fear.”

The German author quoted a trial involving a Hamburg couple who had heroically kept a Jewish man hidden away in their attic during the Holocaust. But instead of releasing him when the war ended, they told him Hitler had won.

For two years, the Jewish jeweller and watchmaker was kept locked in the attic while the couple traded his valuable pieces on the black market.

Inspired, Daly asked German friends to find out more. His original intention was to dramatise the transcript of the trial but the records had been lost in the chaos of post-war Germany. So too had any newspaper reports of the case.

So Daly did what a dramatist does: he read copiously about the bombed-out era ("much the same as Syria is today") and imagined. The result is "part documentary, part allegory", Daly says. "It became the tale of 'the Unknown Jew'."

His version is also "a repressed love story" between "the man in the attic – who thinks he is the luckiest Jew alive because he survived – and the guilt woman of the house who knows she's telling him a big lie."

In 2008, Cate Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton presented Daly with the prestigious Patrick White Playwright's Award for his play, The Man In The Attic.

It was a proud night for Daly. White had been "a hero" while Blanchett had received one of her early breaks in Kafka Dances at the Stables Theatre in 1993.

Fellow playwright Upton and Blanchett were now running the Sydney Theatre Company, which sponsored the Patrick White award (along with The Sydney Morning Herald).

What could possible go wrong?

A decade later, The Man In The Attic is finally getting its Australian premiere. Not at the STC but at the boutique Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst in a version directed by Moira Blumenthal.

In the meantime, the play has been performed many times overseas – in France, Italy, Greece and the US.

Why has it taken so long to come here? Daly, whose work is performed far more often overseas than in his homeland, doesn't hold back.

"It's very rare in Australian theatre to find a big thinker," he says. Those in charge "are always concerned with the next show – or let's be honest – protecting their careers".

"Theatre is a very small market here, jealously guarded, with a lot of insecurity and fear."

When he began writing plays in the 1980s: "We were a cargo culture. We imported hits from London or New York.

"We're still very unadventurous in what we're interested in exporting to the rest of the world. The timidness of Australian theatre is amazing.

"I've had two plays, Kafka Dances and The Man In The Attic, which have toured the world but no Australian theatre knew what they had. Our theatre lacks ambition – small-picture thinking is perhaps symbolic of Australia as a whole."

Daly says the STC has "a very odd response" to works with potential.

"To my knowledge, it has never produced a work that won its own drama prize," he says. "Of course, Andrew Upton and I didn't get on wonderfully."

As you might gather, Daly's outspoken views haven't won him many friends in the local theatre industry. Yet his international reputation is considerable.

His most recent work, Boxing Shadow, commissioned by France's Festival of Avignon, is "another mismatched love story about a very French Parisian and an illegal immigrant".

Daly says outsiders can write perceptively about a country they don't live in.

"And being an Australian playwright is actually a good thing," he says. "Our culture, by nature, is curious and outlooking."

His advice for potential young Australian playwrights? "Write for every market that fascinates you and don't be afraid to use the word market.

"Theatre is an art, a craft and a business. Shakespeare was an internationalist. He didn't care where his stories were set. But he was also a businessman who owned his own theatre.

"That's the best way of getting your plays performed."

The Man In The Attic is running at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst until July 22.

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