Charles Yelverton O’Connor (1843-1902), a legendary figure in the history of Western Australia. The three things I knew about him – he was responsible for the building of the Kalgoorlie pipeline and of Fremantle Harbour… and that he committed suicide “… exhausted by over-work, libellous press criticism and lack of political support.”
This play proceeds on the basis of: what if he had been “put on trial to answer the accusations levelled at him during his lifetime and beyond.” An interesting notion though I was curious about how a hypothetical courtroom drama would be handled.
The script is by AG Evans who wrote the biography CY O’Connor, His Life and Legacy. More on this later.
Firstly though, the set is indeed configured as a courtroom with a prominent Judge’s chair, a dock for the accused, a witness stand, and a table for the prosecutor and defence attorney, at the head of which sits the Clerk of Courts directly below the Judge.
The first act sees the Prosecutor (Dale James) call her witnesses; the second, the case for the Defence (Trish Theisinger). The Judge (Norm Heath) gives instructions to the audience as if they were the jury and (amusing to me at least) everyone (else) would rise when called to do so by the clerk. Witnesses include an Historian (Francesca Meehan); a scurrilous journalist, Vosper (Mario Piccoli); businessman Alexander Forrest (Dale Lovett); his more famous brother Sir John Forrest (Justin McAllister); the widowed wife Mrs Irvine (Caroline McDonnell); former engineer now farmer, Hodgson (Piccoli); and lastly, O’Connor’s daughter Kathleen (Meehan). O’Connor himself is played by Tim Prosser.
Herein lies our problem. O’Connor sits in the dock mute for the majority of the play while the Prosecutor and Defence examine and cross-examine these witnesses. When finally he is called to the stand he meekly complies and is dispatched in short order. He is talked about rather being at the centre of the story. In effect, he doesn’t face his accusers at all – it is subcontracted out to a defence lawyer who is far too calm and matter of fact.
Where is the fire, the thunder, the anger, the drama, the rage?
Everything is so dry and polite, the courtroom device acting as a noose that constricts the drama. Even the sparring between the two lawyers is overly restrained. As a person said at intermission, I wanted to stand up and shout Objection on behalf of the defence lawyer.
James makes the most of what she’s given to work with and Theisinger adds brief moments of sly humour but a lot of this feels like the restating of historical facts and the regurgitation of rumour rather than true emotional human drama. The witnesses give their resumes and talk in odd ways dropping dates, names and technical data, presenting different angles of the controversy swirling around O’Connor. It is way too prosaic and worst of all Prosser can only react with facial expressions. I wanted him to rail at those who besmirched O’Connor’s name. I wanted to understand why O’Connor took his life. I wanted to know how this all affected him as a human being not as an engineer. I didn’t see the torment or doubt or anger. The question of his guilt or innocence was entirely secondary for me. Those arguments are repeated three times – in the trial, in the lawyers’ closing statements, and in the Judge’s summation. There were no escalating stakes or drama. There was no building to the climax that should have been O’Connor taking the stand. There was no ‘wow’ factor.
I apologise while I put my screenwriter’s hat on but if you’re going to re-imagine an alternate timeline then make O’Connor front and centre. Have him defend himself. Have him berate and question and cajole the witnesses. Have them respond in kind and have genuine conflict and interaction with O’Connor in the spotlight. Don’t sideline him for 90% of the play. Build towards a climax – Judas confronting Jesus in the penultimate scene of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot; Juror number 3 breaking down to reveal the source of his anger before changing his verdict in Twelve Angry Men; Colonel Nathan Jessup striding into the courtroom in A Few Good Men. Memorable courtroom dramas all. Sure, you don’t have to go all “You can’t handle the truth” but I wanted to understand more about the man, not the fine details of the historical record and the rainfall figures for Kalgoorlie between 1894-6.
Would this be true to the history? I don’t care. I’m looking for drama, human emotion and insight and it’s perhaps in trying to be too faithful to the past that the drama suffers here. The play was also largely flat and emotionless, the etiquette of the English style courtroom an inhibitor. McAllister adds authority as John Forrest but Meehan is overly theatrical, especially as Kathleen, though maybe the play needs more of this sort of texture and colour to bring it to life.
O’Connor is a fascinating figure and the conceit of the trial has merit but it needs to allow an actor like Prosser to flourish in the title role. It needs O’Connor to ‘hang himself’ (or not) based on his own actions and words, not the testimony of others while he impotently looks on.
Directed by Peter Nettleton, The Trial of C.Y. O’Connor is on at the Latvian Centre in Belmont until 31 May.