Review: Mannix

Although we might be acutely aware of it now, religious conflict is nothing new to Australian shores. In the days before the waves of immigration that shaped Australian society in the second half of the twentieth century, the major source of ethnic and religious tension was sectarian. Animosity between Catholics and Protestants has deep roots, and in Australia the conflict was shaped by tensions between the Catholic Irish and Protestant British. One of the most vocal participants in this sectarian debate was Archbishop Dr Daniel Mannix, a fiery Irish minister who came to Australia soon after Federation and spent the next six decades as either an amoral irritant or the voice of the oppressed, depending on one's perspective.

The life and times of Mannix is the subject of a new one-man (or, more accurately, one-Archbishop) play by the same name. The play is the product of an unlikely creative marriage: the writer is veteran Rod Quantock, a man whose extensive biography includes plenty of comedy but, thus far, little drama, whilst the performer is Terence Donovan, himself a legend of stage and screen. Clearly the duo are great admirers of the Archbishop, and do their best to share their enthusiasm for the old warhorse.

Quantock, Mannix and Donovan
Quantock, Mannix and Donovan

The play makes excellent use of multimedia. At the back of a stage is a projection screen which serves multiple purposes, initially in conveying the bustling excitement of turn-of-the-century Melbourne, then later in a bittersweet portrayal of cantankerous Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Some of the archival footage is fascinating to Melbourne-o-philes and helps to turn the history of one remarkable individual into a social history of the city.

The central problem to the play, however, is one of dramatic structure. Rather than the traditional story arc which builds toward a dramatic climax, the play consists of a series of small story arcs, each telling an anecdote from Mannix's life. Some are endearing, some are sad and a few are funny, but the lack of continuity from one to the other means the play struggles to develop any dramatic tension. When it reaches its end, it's only the curtain call (admittedly well deserved) that signifies that the play is over.

According to all reports, Daniel Mannix was an imposing figure who always spoke his mind. It takes a performer of great experience and subtlety to portray the character with gritty authenticity rather than sinking into the caricature which can often afflict portrayals of historic figures. Terence Donovan handles the task with great aplomb, his furrowed brow and reflective disposition looking every bit like that of the Archbishop a century earlier. For anyone with an interest in the history of this nation, and the unusual characters who made it what it is, this play is a captivating experience. For the rest, the story falls a little too flat to capture the imagination.

Mannix is playing at Melbourne’s Trades Hall until 25 June.


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