Neighbourhood Watch began with the most casual commission; in fact, ‘commission’ is too strong a word. The play began with a bit of thrown away conversation at an Opening Night reception some years ago between playwright Lally Katz and an actor she hardly knew, Robyn Nevin. Lally, by the way of idle foyer chat, said perhaps she could write a play for Robyn some time, and Robyn said sure but the character would need to be tough and funny.
And that’s as far as it went for a while. Lally kept the ‘tough and funny’ stipulation in the back of her mind, but nothing came to her until an elderly Hungarian woman in her street called her over one day and they began to talk. Pretty soon they were friends. ‘She started telling me all these stories, about her life, about her experiences in Hungary and the war, and I realised this is “tough and funny”, this is her, this is the character I have to write for Robyn.’
When Lally Katz talks about her friend Ana, she can’t resist imitating her voice. It is the voice that comes through so strongly in the play. The tone is low and gloomy, heavily accented with a syntax all her own. She does sound tough and funny – also suspicious and prickly – and Lally admits that the relationship over the years has occasionally been difficult. In fact, at the time of our interview, Ana had cut her off. Lally is not sure why. A dark and final message was left on Lally’s phone two weeks before, but Lally doesn’t seem too worried. ‘She’s threatened to cut me off a thousand times – she’s always like: “If you do not come visit to me, we are finished!”’
In many long conversations over two years Ana spun her stories and Lally gathered them up, knowing they were gold, but writing nothing. Procrastination set in. ‘Ana kept giving me more and more great stuff,’ Lally says. ‘And I kept thinking, I can’t write the play yet because I’m still living it. But I also knew that I had to start writing.’ In 2009, to break the inertia, she wrote a note to Robyn Nevin when she was at MTC performing The Year of Magical Thinking that went along the lines of: ‘By the way, I don’t know if you remember this conversation, but you said if I wrote you something, a tough and funny character, you might be interested. Well, I’ve spent the last two years of my life with this character and maybe we could talk about her.’
At subsequent meetings, Robyn loved what she heard and encouraged Lally (‘She sort of ordered me’) to start writing the play. With so much raw material, the first draft was about two hundred pages long, but Robyn, the director Simon Stone and Ralph Myers at Belvoir thought that a great story about careless, contemporary Australia clashing with Ana’s vivid memories of war-wasted Europe could be hewn out of the monolith. In subsequent drafts, Lally removed many of her trademark quirks and recurring characters, the magic realist elements that MTC audiences would remember from Return to Earth and The Apocalypse Bear Trilogy. ‘The external magic stuff had to go’ she says, ‘but … it became clear that I didn’t need all this other stuff when the play’s magic can be in Ana.’
‘She’s a magic person in real life,’ Lally says. ‘She enters a room and the atmosphere changes. If she tells you a story, it’s like the movies; fairy dust sprinkles around and suddenly you are in the story. So I realised, I just had to be distilling it all, so that her story and the story of our neighbourhood, Hungary, World War II, could be used to its fullest potential.’
Neighbourhood Watch was a smash for Belvoir in 2011 and Lally Katz’s biggest success yet, giving her theatrical recognition beyond the Melbourne independent scene where most of her plays have been performed. Although she had always told Ana she was writing a play about her, Lally didn’t think it really clicked with her until the Opening Night at Belvoir. Her reaction to the play was somewhat typical, says Lally: ‘It was a mixture of being very pleased and wanting to sue me.’
Neighbourhood Watch by Lally Katz is now playing at Southbank Theatre, the Sumner until 26 April