Diary of a sane man

By Elissa Blake


Neil Armfield (BA (Hons) ’77) speaks between careful sips of homemade vegetable soup. Too busy for a proper lunch break, the acclaimed theatre and opera director sits at his desk in Belvoir Street’s open-plan warehouse surrounded by papers, old Christmas cards and a packet of dog treats for his beloved Labrador, Grace, asleep on the nearby couch.

His chaotic desk may lead some to think he has a messy mind. But Armfield has one of the fiercest brains in the business. Renowned for his intelligence, keen observation and dogged determination, Armfield has a vast capacity for work.

In the past 12 months alone he has picked up a Helpmann Award for his direction of the Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes, wowed Edinburgh International Festival audiences with a new opera, Bliss; revived his Opera Australia production of

The Marriage of Figaro and, in September, remounted his critically-acclaimed production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

If that’s not enough, he has also remained at the helm of Company B at Belvoir Street Theatre in Surry Hills, directing the delightful The Book of Everything and the smash hit Gwen in Purgatory by Tommy Murphy (BA ’04). He is now in final rehearsals with Geoffrey Rush for an encore season of the hugely successful 1989 adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary
of a Madman.

The workload is enough to slay a regular person. But Armfield has a unique attitude to creative work.

“I have adopted a conscious attitude of surrender,” he says, smiling. “I strive to make every moment in a production better than any moment that’s happened before – I have very high ambitions – but then I step back and just let it be.

“There is no point anxiously worrying anything into existence because it will be a product of fear. You have to somehow blend ambition with surrender and just let things happen the way they need to happen.”

Armfield says he learned this philosophy from “four amazing Indigenous women” while he was directing Dallas Winmar’s Aliwa for Company B in 2001. Every morning actors Deborah Mailman, Kylie Belling, Aunty Dot Collard and Ningali Lawford would come to rehearsal, often with young children in tow, and talk about cooking and what they would feed the kids for lunch. “The cooking made its way into the show and I learned how to surrender. It was a terribly important show for me,” says Armfield.

The ultimate surrender comes next month when he says farewell to Company B and Belvoir Street, after 16 years as the theatre’s artistic director. Armfield says Belvoir has been his life’s work but it is “high time” to move on.

“It feels really right, I feel lighter,” he says. “Of course there are many things I will miss. But I have quite a bit of opera coming up and I’m interested in film. I really want to shed some responsibility and get some space. The last 10 years have been mad.”

Armfield, 55, grew up in Concord, in Sydney’s inner west, the youngest son of Len, then a foreman in the Arnott’s biscuit factory, and Anita, a housewife. He was a playful and brilliant student at Homebush Boys High School, often staying back until 9pm, rehearsing with the theatre group.

His first production, Toad of Toad Hall, won a statewide high school drama prize and caught the eye of acclaimed Indigenous actor and director Brian Syron.

“He gave me a gift by telling me I had a gift for directing,” Armfield recalls. “The best advice he had was: if you want to direct, just go and do it. You’ll never learn by watching other people do it.

“Over the years, I have learned the director’s job is to listen. If you are listening to everything, you will find a way through.”
After school, Armfield applied to NIDA as an actor telling the audition panel he ultimately wanted to direct. They told him to go to university and study literature. He did, then won a postgraduate scholarship to research dramatist Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, but says he was “kicked out” of the English Department by Dame Leonie Kramer.

“She quite rightly saw that my interests weren’t really academic. Instead of writing about Ben Jonson, I was putting on a production of Bartholomew Fair. Most of the energy and the pleasure of university was directing with SUDS over and over and over again,” he says.

“When I was there, performance wasn’t a subject and drama was studied as texts in the English department. So we put on shows and bonded with people who were obsessed and loved it. We did it all ourselves with little or no mentoring from teachers. That was a great thing. We learned from our mistakes.

“I learned my craft at Sydney University. So when I was offered professional work, I had already made the mistakes you need to make in order to feel confidence in the rehearsal room working with actors. It was completely crucial and formative.”

For SUDS, Armfield directed Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and After Magritte, Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and a “really bad version” of Measure for Measure. Despite the strong bonds, half the members of SUDS walked out at one point claiming the club had become the “Neil Armfield Adoration Society” and the precocious director was getting all the best gigs. (Later in his career, actors would mutter that Armfield’s quietly demanding directing style was like “an iron fist in a velvet cardigan”.)

He still remains close friends with many of his SUDS contemporaries, including playwright and director Michael Gow (Armfield directed his award-winning play Toy Symphony in 2007), composer Alan John and librettist Dennis Watkins, who co-created The Eighth Wonder, an opera based on Jørn Utzon and the building of the Sydney Opera House (directed by Armfield in 1995).

“I loved university. I’m surprised that I did quite well really academically; given the amount of time I spent with my concentration on SUDS. It just felt like an immensely stimulating and safe time,” he says. “It was 1973 and Whitlam had just come in, it was a really extraordinary time for state education. There was no such thing as HECS. There was great support within the campus for all the societies. It was a very privileged time.”

Armfield’s final productions at SUDS, Gimme Shelter by British playwright Barrie Keefe and Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, were noticed by the arts industry and led to his first professional play, aged 24, at Nimrod: David Allen’s Upside Down at the Bottom of the World. He then worked with Jim Sharman’s Lighthouse Theatre in Adelaide before returning to Sydney in 1984 where he was involved in the purchase of the Belvoir Street Theatre and the formation of Company B, becoming it’s artistic director in 1994.

“I resisted coming to Belvoir for a long time. I was wary that becoming artistic director would interfere with my development as a play director, but I suppose I got to a greater level of confidence to know I could combine the two,” Armfield says. “I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of jumping in the deep end and just free falling. You can’t wait for certainty.”

Armfield brought a larrikin, undecorated theatrical vision to Belvoir. He reinvented classics, sometimes with a vaudeville or music hall aesthetic. He gave voice to many Indigenous writers and performers and nurtured a generation of talent including Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Geoffrey Rush.

“I always aim for a simplicity of means. I get rid of any decoration or embellishment and place the performer in a space where there is concentration on the human body and the clarity of the story,” Armfield says of the house style he forged at Belvoir. “The theatre here is a rare space where the audience breathes the same air as the actors. It’s a handmade, intimate experience.”

He says his early landmark productions at Belvoir include Ibsen’s Ghosts, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Hamlet; Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant is Dancing and two by Indigenous writer Jack Davis, No Sugar and State of Shock. Among the personal milestones he nominates are Small Poppies, Exit the King (which successfully transferred to Broadway in 2009), the plays of David Hare, his epic staging of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain, the satirical musical Keating!, and recent productions, The Book of Everything and Gwen in Purgatory.

“I’m proud of all of them. From the moment I left school, creating works of theatre has been as natural an action as cooking or eating for me,” he says.

“Every piece of theatre involves an act of will. It’s just what I do. If I were a painter I’d paint. I think there’s a constant rejuvenation in the experience of an audience receiving a performance and I think that there’s a thrill of something being right and funny or communicative and meaningful in all sorts of ways. I take pleasure in other people’s pleasure.”

Armfield says the new production of Diary of a Madman will be a fitting bookend for his career at Belvoir Street. “I’d almost given up on reviving it, but after Exit the King was so well received, Geoffrey said ‘let’s do Diary again’. It’s the most perfect expression for Geoffrey’s mixture of total physical immersion in a part and very robust clowning and great, great, capacity for emotional release. It’s an extremely appropriate last show,” he says.

It won’t be Armfield’s final show at Belvoir, however. Next year he returns as a guest director with a new production of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, starring Robyn Nevin, Dan Wyllie, Yael Stone and Helen Thomson. He will also take Diary of a Madman to the Brooklyn Academy of Music before heading to Toronto to direct Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos for the Canadian Opera Company.

After the warm reception for his feature film debut, Candy (2006), he has his eye on a number of film scripts (he has a film agent in Los Angeles and a theatre agent in New York) and he will soon start work on his most ambitious opera project yet, Wagner’s 12-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle), a joint production of Opera Australia and Houston Grand Opera to be staged in Melbourne in 2013.

“I’ve never really planned my career. I just follow what comes up and keep as many possibilities open as I can. Next year isn’t too jam-packed,” he insists.

His plan to stay sane and creative includes simple pleasures. “I just try and sleep in on Saturdays. I keep my dog close by and I go up to a beach shack at Patonga, which is an extremely important retreat for me. I think it’s important to look at the horizon every now and then.”

The Diary of a Madman opens at Belvoir Street Theatre on December 8.

“Hold on tight,” he says. We are halfway across a kilometre-wide swale. He puts his foot down and we speed towards the rising wave of red. For a mment I think we won’t make it, but we nudge over the paper-thin crest to see an endless vista of red dunes, like a perfectly formed set of waves rolling towards an unknown shore. We are in the lead and two more University Hiluxes follow in close succession. We’ve made it, but the roller-coaster ride into main camp is only just beginning.

Ecology Professor, Institute of Wildlife Research Director and founder of the Desert Ecology Research Group (DERG), Chris Dickman says, “Once you get red sand under your skin it pulls you back irresistibly. You don’t have much say about it.”

When Dr Glenda Wardle, Botanist, Senior Lecturer and fellow DERG leader, first came to the University she thought Dickman “must be mad to work in the desert”. The prospect of spending three weeks sleeping on the ground, enduring flies and 40C+ daytime temperatures did not fill her with enthusiasm. But after just one April day in 1998, she knew she would be back.

“I don’t ever conceive of a time that I couldn’t be returning, which makes me think there must be something magnetic about the desert,” Wardle says.


Photo of seedlings growing in the desert sand

But it’s more than the sand and sky that draws the DERG back to the Simpson Desert three to four times a year. It is a place where the depth and processes of biodiversity continues to intrigue and surprise scientists with each visit.

When Dickman first set out in 1990, he thought they’d know all they could about biodiversity in Australia’s arid dry-zone in five or six years. That was 20 years ago. After hundreds of collective visits, the head scratching continues. “On every trip we see something we haven’t seen before,” says Dickman.

Bobby Tamayo (BSc ’95), Operations Manager for the DERG and a veteran of 50 desert expeditions, knows how important their work is. “It has become clear,” he says, “that learning and understanding even more about the arid zones, which make up 70 per cent of Australia, will be vital to the future of Australia.”

While the Simpson Desert is only one part of the continent’s vast arid zone, it covers more than 17 million hectares of central Australia. The parallel dunes, running southeast to northwest, extend for up to 200kms, aligned with the dominant wind direction when they were formed during the Pleistocene epoch, about 80,000 years ago. Like the still water between waves, the swales lie between the shifting masses of red – either as wind-polished gibber pebbles or mineral encrusted clay pans.

DERG works mainly within Queensland’s Diamantina Shire channel country area on Bush Heritage Australia’s Ethabuka and Cravens Peak reserves as well as the Carlo and Tobermorie cattle stations in the Northern Territory.

Photo of a mouse digging a hole in the sand

For Dickman, the dunes and swales are an environment where the diversity of life is “in your face”.

“There’s a richness that hasn’t been greatly affected by human activity,” he says.

Four-time volunteer, David Nelson (BSc Adv (Hons) ’08), refers to a common misconception about life in the desert. “So many people think there aren’t a lot of animals out here,” he says. “But really, the desert is home to so many amazing creatures and plants.”

And as 95 per cent of desert mammals are nocturnal, it’s when the sun sets that life really gets going.

“You only need to walk along the top of a dune to see the footprints of a dozen species that have been active the night before,” says Nelson.

You may not think it, looking across the quiet landscape, but in the Simpson Desert there are 17 small mammal, more than 150 bird, four types of frog and 54 reptile species. In fact it is home to the most diverse reptile population of any arid zone in the world. It’s also the animals themselves, from the Hairy-footed Dunnart to the Water-holding frog – emerging with the rain – that keeps the excitement high during these trips. The Mulgara, a small marsupial with a tail sporting a distinctive crest of short black hairs, seems to be on everyone’s “favourite” list.

Mulgaras are little packets of ferocity

“Mulgaras are little packets of ferocity,” says George Madani (MA AppSc ’06), wildlife ecologist and six-time desert returnee. “They’re full of spunk and attitude and their size belies their strength.”

But most impressive is the animals’ ability to adapt: an inhospitable environment such as the Simpson Desert has its challenges. For four-time volunteer, Henry Cook (BSc ’05 MA (AppSc) ’06) the Rufous Crowned Emu Wren, one of Australia’s smallest birds, wins the resilience prize.

“They’re so improbable; they only weigh three or four grams. They’ve got little wings that are hopeless for dispersal so they hop between spinifex clumps. But they still persist.

“Without burrows or the ability to store a lot of fat they have learned to thermo-regulate in extreme climatic conditions, from near zero to 50 degrees,” says Cook.

Says DERG Research Assistant and 29-time returnee, Aaron Greenville (BSc Biology (Hons) ’01), “I have experienced flooding rains and dry dust storms. This has highlighted to me how amazing the environment of arid Australia is and how reptiles, mammals, birds and plants cope under what we would consider extreme circumstances.”

Front row seat

For Tamayo the most thrilling part of the desert is having a front row seat. “We get to see some of Australia’s most interesting wildlife in conditions that not many other people will experience,” he says.

The Simpson Desert is an ancient landscape, one with relatively few signs of human presence. This, says Wardle, is what allows scientists to look at how an ecological system works in total.

“I hope to live long enough to complete the picture but the more questions answered by the combined research team, the more we’re bringing in new blood and exciting them about a range of more complicated questions,” she says.

This “new blood” represents the many Honours and Doctoral students – past and present – who have spent time in the desert helping unlock its mysteries. Nicole Hills (BSc (Hons) ’08), a PhD student looking at the complex predator-prey interactions of goannas and small vertebrates in arid Australia, is one of them. She fell in love with the desert after one trip. “It’s unique and I enjoy pushing myself and working with animals that haven’t had a lot of research done on them.”

Desert gurus

Tony Popic (BSc (Hons) ’08), another PhD student, is working with Wardle, “When you start doing the really long term studies you have a large data set and are in a better position to answer questions and know how systems work,” he says. And according to Wardle, “the DERG’s is among the longest and most comprehensive arid zone research projects in Australia.”

Since he first went on a DERG trip in 2004, Madani puts down learning so much about the arid zone to good-natured teachers.

“They are interested, excited and enjoy what they do so they want to share it with other people,” he says. He is referring principally to Dickman and Wardle, the desert gurus, who both have troupes of loyal followers.

Having joined in with desert studies 12 years ago Wardle says she has enhanced but not changed what Dickman first started. “I think I would give credit to Chris’s personality,” she says. “He is definitely key and pivotal to the successes of this desert program.”

One of the first PhD students to work with Dickman in the desert was Martin Predavec (BSc (Hons) ’91 PhD ’94) who, from 1991, clocked up 20 desert visits. Now an ecologist for an environmental consultancy, he says Dickman’s love for science is infectious. “He is a true scholar and gentleman in every sense of the word,” Predavec says. “He is what drew me into doing work on mammals in the desert.”

Errol Nye (PhD ’04) also completed his PhD at the University under Dickman and attributes much of what he has achieved professionally to Dickman’s supervision, mentoring and friendship. “Chris deserves all the plaudits he receives,” Nye says. “He is a truly great man among men.”

Tamayo, another “desert guru”, who has worked closely with Dickman for years, says, “He’s like the Pied Piper of ecologists. So many people just want to follow him and do as he does because he’s such a good mentor for not only myself but a lot of other people.”

It’s not only biology students who are led into the desert, there are also hundreds of volunteers who’ve been infected with the red sand syndrome.

“It’s hard to describe. You see it catch up to people during the trip,” says Wardle. For many, it’s an experience that involves the heightening of senses.

Megan Hughes, first-time volunteer in 2009 reflects on the sound of silence. “It’s a feeling of being nowhere, but being in the right place and loving it,” she says.

It’s not surprising that after so many years, the locals in Bedourie in Queensland – the last stop before main camp – have coined a nickname for the team. On a fuel stop in the early ’90s, Dickman was approached by a local and asked what he was doing. After explaining that they were on their way to the desert to catch small mammals, reptiles and rats, the group was christened “the rat catchers”. While no one’s seen a rat in the desert since 1995, the name stuck. The nickname has also filtered down to other towns along the way, marking the Sydney to Simpson trail from sea to red sand.


Photo of people around a campfire

When a long day’s driving is over the Hiluxes pull off the road, swags are rolled out for the night before doing it all again the next day. But one thing frequent desert travellers know is to never count on anything going to plan. The November/December 2009 trip was no exception: inland rain closed the road to Bedourie, and we sat it out in Windorah where we squatted under a big tin-roofed tennis court for three nights. After two days at Coopers Creek we were back on the road, this time north to Boulia, an alternative route into the Desert. On journeys like this desert camaraderie lays its traps.

“There is an intimate interdependence among people. You negotiate what you’re going to cook each day, where you’re going to get firewood and who is going to fetch the water,” says Wardle. And more than anything, there’s time. “Just being able to look into things is a pleasure for an ecologist,” she says.

This doesn’t mean the days aren’t filled with hard, laborious work, however. At dawn the birds are up, the breeze is cool and the sun bathes everything in a golden light. The long shadows and crisp air coax everyone out of swags. The routine goes something like: check pit fall traps for small mammals and reptiles, process the catch, conduct vegetation surveys, mend traps and fences; at night go spotlighting for animals and, on the November/December trip, chase and noose Sand goannas. And during the midday hours, there’s time to read, talk and sit back.

Main camp, located on Bush Heritage Australia’s Ethabuka Reserve, is impossible to miss. Marked by an unusual cluster of the slow-growing Gidgee trees, it is the centre of the DERG’s activities. Another feature is The Caravan, tattooed with the hands and names of those who have gone before; a treasure trove of eating utensils, crockery, canned food, sunscreen 10 years past its use-by date, shovels, research tools and red dust.

The day-to-day schedule and the logistics of cooking, sleeping and eating under the big sky are simple. I can even look forward to warm milk on my Weetbix and a cup of tea in the morning. In fact, with minimal resources, every dinner at the end of a hard day is unfailingly delicious. Then again, maybe everything tastes better cooked over an open fire, under the stars – there are several capable cooks among us. The fresh veggies are gone in the first week but we eat stir-fries, pastas and curries. One night, there’s even chocolate pudding, made craftily by Nic Hills.

Without running water, toilet facilities or electricity, the desert offers everyone a chance to, literally, get back to nature. On arrival, we sit down to an informal “desert orientation”, covering hydration, work schedules and the all-important “poo dune” etiquette.

“Tie the pink flagging tape up, take a shovel, head on over and dig a good hole,” says Madani. “Burn everything.”

There is a complete disconnect from the outside world but for two hours of satellite phone connection in the evening. This simple way of life is a welcome change.

“There’s a sense of relief when you get out there,” says Cook. “Your phone stops working, you don’t have to answer emails and what we do is relatively simple.” For researchers and volunteers who go regularly, the desert, or “five million star hotel”, becomes a second home.

Wardle agrees. “If you go four times a year for three weeks you’ve actually lived three months of that year, in the desert.” Looked at this way, over 20 years, Chris Dickman has spent roughly five years on the sand.

Research projects

Their current work is focused on two Australian Research Council (ARC) funded projects. The first, “The renaissance predator: complex predator-prey interactions and vertebrate diversity in arid Australia”, investigates the effects of predators like the Red fox and Sand goannas on the broader prey community in arid Australia. The second, “Dynamic networks in a patchy landscape: will species interactions adjust to increased climatic extremes?” seeks to probe and extend current theory about how ecological systems, including plant-pollinator interactions, respond to extreme events, and provide the first insights into the mechanisms that drive change.

For these projects, Nature could not have organised a better weather event than the 2010 February/March inundation of Western Queensland. In a good year the Desert can expect around 150mm of rain. On March 1, more than 185mm fell on Bedourie, roughly 160kms from the main research site. The Bureau of Meteorology estimates that during the 10-day period ending March 3, 403,000 gigalitres of rain fell on the Northern Territory and Queensland. And that was not the last of it. The 2010 rains have been saturating enough to bring on what the scientists call a “boom period”. Wardle expects the germination of the annual plants from the seed banks and an explosive flowering of perennial trees and shrubs. But it’s not just the plants that benefit from the usually dry land’s inundation. “Six months from now we’ll expect the productivity of plant resources to flow into the animals.”

In 2010, a year of rain, it is also a year for bridging communication gaps between scientists and local community. While the DERG has built relationships with many of the Bedourie townspeople, explanations of their research have never extended beyond a chat over a beer at the pub. On July 1, however, the DERG arrived in Bedourie, after three weeks in the desert, to present an evening to share what it is they actually do in the desert. This initiative forms part of the Iconic Landscapes Study, funded by the Institute of Sustainable Solutions, aiming to connect scientific research with communities.

Dancing brolgas

On my last day, I see a flock of dancing Brolgas. They leap into the air, bouncing as if on a trampoline; their wings spread wide. Within seconds, they are a gliding flock of silver in the sky. After 10 days on the road and in the desert, I’m also about to fly home. The others will drive back to Sydney in a week.

It’s 3pm. I’m sitting at the Simpson Desert Oasis bar talking to Gary, Bedourie’s carpenter. I gabble about my experience and ask him what he thinks of the desert. He says the thing he likes most about being in Bedourie is the people. “It’s about community.” It strikes me then that I’ve only scraped the surface of what makes this part of the world so special. Then I’m in the big sky of big sky country and can see the dunes laid across the land we charged over in 4WD convoy. From the air, the fluidity of the channel country and the way it bleeds colours, textures and shapes resembles an ever-changing abstract canvas. It reminds me of the words Chris Dickman spontaneously recited when I asked him about the desert landscape months before: “And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush – the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands.” Henry Lawson had it right in The Bush Undertaker.

Gemma Deavin (BA (Media&Comm ’09) is the Iconic Landscapes Study’s project officer and a freelance journalist.


Click on a thumbnail to enlarge