Gay playwright Peter Kenna was the first to write plays about the rich family conflicts of the Irish Catholics in Australia. Marginalised from the Anglo-Protestant mainstream in a way which is incomprehensible today, the Irish in Australia clung like a tribe to a religion which seems to have given them equal measure of comfort and terror.
There wasn’t -“ and there isn’t -“ much comfort though in Catholicism for an Irish boy growing up gay, especially one in rural Australia during the 1940s. This story of young Joe Cassidy is a subplot of A Hard God.
Kenna later expanded this most successful of his plays into a whole autobiographical trilogy, following Joe’s later writing career and adult grappling with his homosexuality.
Here though Joe is a teenager burning for the companionship of Jack. Both are consumed by a passion they don’t dare name, but Jack is terrified by the shame decreed by the priests.
The larger action of the play covers Joe’s parents, and the arrival of his Dad’s two broken brothers. One is a mad poet haunted by an unforgiving God and a wife who dreams of the nunnery; the other is weak man bullied by a very different wife, who’s traded God for gambling and adultery.
Dan tries to patch up his brother’s lives while his own wife, the irrepressible and straight-talking Agnes, bites her tongue.
Agnes is Kenna’s best character. She was first brilliantly played, when A Hard God premiered at the Stables Theatre in 1973, by the former vaudevillian Gloria Dawn. (I was a baby NIDA student in the audience.)
Jackie Weaver in this production pushes all the right buttons but can’t fully capture the truth of Agnes’s gritty pragmatism and rough heart. Max Gillies is her quiet husband Dan; Ralph Cotterill is convincing as the mercurial poet, while Maeliosa Stafford is less so as the henpecked other brother.
Denis Moore directs a true if safely conventional production. Kenna’s two separate plots remain largely unconnected, except for that dreadful, unforgiving Hard God who crushes the lives of both the adults and the teenage boys.
But Kenna delivers a warm theatrical experience, weaving together both comedy and drama with finely wrought characters who demand our care.
He’s at his best writing the tentative love and then anxiety between the boys, beautifully played out by Ben Matthews and David Lyons. A Hard God is an Australian classic worth remembering.
A Hard God from the Sydney Theatre Company is now at the Wharf Theatre.