Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 33, Number 7. 27 May, 1970
This Story of Yours
John Hopkins is well known for his writing for television: about thirty episodes for Z Cars and then the quartet Talking to a Stranger. He said in an interview in late 1968, "Although I'll never write another Quartet-I don't think I have that in me—I will, hopefully, do something with the same craft-precision one day". It would be false modesty in him if he did not admit to This Story of Yours as being in the same class of craftmanship, though not in scale. It is a superbly written play and the dialogue is outstanding. He can evoke a compelling range of colloquial speech from the pathetic or brutal to fragmented monologue.
The story is about a detective-sergeant, Johnson, who in the course of interrogation beats to death an alleged pervert called Baxter, accused of luring little girls into the woods. But the central issue is not what happened but why Johnson came to do it. The structure presents Johnson as a suitable case for treatment in a series of three extended duologues: Act I with his distressed wife immediately after the event; Act II with a superior officer reluctantly detailed to investigate Baxter's death; and Act III the climax, the entire tragic interrogation. The psychological essence distils slowly from the mounting impact of all the words and gestures of mixed bullying and supplication, from all the groping and reluctant recognition that a policeman may be kin to his charge; and from the clinch of insight as Baxter flips back at Johnson's "You bloody little pervert!"—"It takes one to know one".
The form and development instructively reveal how much live drama can successfully use techniques specifically developed in television: the crosscutting effects of topic and tone necessary to sustain extended confrontations; and, within the larger structure, the three parallel duologues comprising the acts which circle round the central psychological issue, Johnson himself. This dramatic movement was further enhanced by the revolving set capable of presenting almost immediately the three successive Situations. If only it were practically possible to drive Grant Tilly straight on from act to act then that cutting effect would come even closer to television or film. But it would be easy to over-emphasise this point. The play works extremely well as a conventional three-acter although we can recognise that its form has been influenced by the practices of television and that it is congenial to an audience pre-informed by television techniques.
It would also be misleading to overemphasise the schematic structure to the disadvantage of characterisation. Grant Tilly was superb as Johnson and impressively created a remarkably well-observed character. Hopkins is very liberal in the script with apparently minute bits of business: "Johnson gnaws at the side of his finger" or "Baxter rubs his hands together nervously... feeling the dirt on his palms rasp" and such like. Mr Tilly used them all and more with admirable timing and to great cumulative effect. He is also responsible for the design of the revolving set—which drew an appreciative clap as it turned in the semi-darkness between the acts. I applaud his great talent and point out what must be obvious to theatregoers, that he is the finest actor/designer in the country.
There were fine performances in support too. Anne Flannery gave an intelligently controlled performance as Johnson's pathetically uncomprehending wife. Alan Jervis as the chief inspector was smart, clipped, sternly affected with his little cigars and authoritative—"just the kind of man who gets made Inspector." He blended with some skill the feelings of unwelcome duty and contempt for Johnson as a professional failure. This was a good performance and made more of its relatively limited possibilities than the more demanding third act. Here Ken Blackburn seemed to take a little while to settle in but became increasingly brilliant as the scene progressed and the two men began to cruelly expose each other, becoming almost interchangeable in their obsessions. This climaxed with Baxter becoming dominant and contemptuously refusing Johnson's cry for help: "Help your bloody self!" Then the fatal beating up restarts in earnest with the total effect intended to be a species of perverted orgasmic release. Now sexually tinged violence is for both the only possible means of communication.
The script specifies additional sound effects of sobbing, whipping, screams and other echoes of those nightmare visions Johnson has been trying to share with Baxter. The present performance omits them, apparently agreeing with John Russell Taylor in Plays and Players that they "weaken by over-emphasising a point already adequately made". I disagree. Apart from the fact that Hopkins wanted them in, I feel they would meaningfully re-express in an immediately aural and extra-dimensional way, all the earlier hints of Johnson's tormented inner life: the fear of his father's beatings and bullying generally; this repression turning to a need to dominate, yet retaining a craving to be dominated (his career was father-army-police); his failure with his wife; a fear of sexual refusal with a need to be wanted and remembered, which in his case is twisted into cruelty becoming the only satisfying sexual communication. In words it is clumsy enough, but the orgasmic killing accompanied by these highly evocative gasps and screams are an attempt to create Johnson's dementia for the audience and should have tremendous dramatic impact. As it was, the violence was not as convincing as it should have been. Thanks to film and TV, and whether we like it or not, we are all sophisticates in vicariously appreciating violence; and even if we do not really know how appalling it is, at least we can tell when the illusion fails to completely convince. This was the case here. Done to the limits which Hopkins' script suggests, the shattered audience might have been crawling out on its knees.