The Legend of King O’Malley

1 Dec

The Faust myth is oddly enduring.

It’s fascinating how we’ll repeat stories in which people sell their soul to the devil for earthly rewards; fascinating because who actually believes in the devil? Or, indeed, the soul?

So what’s its meaning? That if you achieve anything (knowledge, influence, sexual allure) you must pay an enormous cost? A cost so disproportionate that you’d have to be mad with self importance to agree to it in the first place?

Nietzsche might call it a slave philosophy. It seems to suggest that anyone who succeeds in this world is inherently evil, and evil will inevitably come to them. A philosophy like that can only be of comfort to the powerless. (Or those wishing to pretend they are more powerless than they actually are – which I usually argue is pretty much anyone who has the time and money to attend theatre in Australia. Myself included.)

In The Legend of King O’Malley the titular character sells his soul for wealth and power. It’s a particularly strange take on the myth because O’Malley was a real person, an American preacher who migrated to Australia and was elected to our fledgling federal parliament.

As O’Malley was a real person, I think it’s safe to assume that the writers, Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, have invented the whole ‘deal with the devil’ bit. I’m not sure why. (I’m also not sure why the first act, which deals with O’Malley’s time as a preacher, is as long as it is.)

Photo by Afshar Hodar

Photo by Afshar Hodar

Director Phil Rouse’s production is a relentlessly raucous ragtag rat bag revue. (OK, despite being wonderfully high energy, it’s not actually relentlessly raucous. I just got on a roll with the alliteration.) There are beautifully vibrant performances from the entire cast, but there are also some moments of stillness and emotional impact.

James Cook as King O’Malley and Matt Hickey as Billy Hughes do terrific work in the playful scenes, but they change gear magnificently to provide the dramatic heart of the piece.  (Spoiler Alert) It’s during World War One. Prime Minister Hughes supports conscription, but O’Malley does not. O’Malley resigns from Hughes’ cabinet, and then fails to win his seat at the next election. Or indeed any election after that. (O’Malley lived till 1953, and at the time of his death was the last surviving member of our first national parliament.)

When the play was written, in 1970, conscription was Australian policy. We were sending our young men to fight in Vietnam. I suspect this is what led Boddy and Ellis to choose O’Malley’s story. As a piece of political propaganda, arguing that the state exists for the individual and not the opposite, it’s effective and intensely moving.

And perhaps, despite my earlier questioning, the play’s form serves a purpose. Boddy and Ellis’ O’Malley is a shyster and raconteur – so much so that only an appropriation of a grand myth could make sense of him. But he still put us “lazy, dumb” Australians to shame.

Or at least shook us up.

Of course, the Australian people never did vote ‘Yes’ to conscription in the First War. And in 1972, two years after this play was originally presented, we finally voted in a government that ended conscription’s most recent incarnation.

This production is a timely reminder of the power of our elected representatives, and how it’s our responsibility to continue to push them to create a more just society.

Veronica Kaye

The Legend Of King O’Malley by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis

Seymour Centre til 13 Dec


One Response to “The Legend of King O’Malley”

  1. Professor Rankinstein December 2, 2014 at 6:47 am #

    I want you on my side when the revolution begins

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