Interview with Phil Rouse | Director, The Rivers of China

Phil Rouse HeadshotPremiering this month is Don’t Look Away’s production of Alma De Groen’s classic Australian play ‘The Rivers of China.’

The play takes place in two very different worlds. Firstly, it is inspired by the extraordinary life of New Zealand born writer Katherine Mansfield (1988-1923). In the 1920’s Mansfield travels to France seeking a cure for her tuberculosis from controversial healer Georgei Gurdjieff.

Travel forward some ninety years and we find ourselves in contemporary Melbourne. A young man is admitted to hospital following an attempted suicide. He awakes to find his body bandaged. Underneath lies a shocking transformation.

We catch up with Director Phil Rouse to hear more about his theatre company and directing this fascinating, multi-layered play.

Alma De Groen’s The Rivers of China was written in 1988. Your company, Don’t Look Away is all about ‘reviving classic Australian plays.’ Why is this important to you?

Australia has a problem with remembering it’s own history. There seems to be a perpetual cycle of re-invention without necessarily building upon the past. For Don’t Look Away reviving classic Australian plays is about giving the works back to an audience. I believe that we can only grow stronger as a culture if we absorb more of the past into our contemporary thinking.

Initially, what intrigued you most about The Rivers of China?

It’s imagination. Who would think to tell a story about Katherine Mansfield by framing it in this strange alternate history? Alma De Groen apparently. And it’s genius!

The play has been described as – ‘a feminist investigation of sexual oppression and identity.’ This could be considered intimidating to a male Director? How have you approached these themes?

Yes, I have found myself intimidated at times. While I understand and can criticize the parts of the play set in 1922, I am forced to be more ambiguous about the contemporary world setting. I don’t believe that it is a complete dystopia because I understand the historical logic behind the world (an inverted patriarchy with women as the dominant gender); however, the oppression of one group by another isn’t something one can support. I revel in these ambiguities and believe that they are incredibly compelling for a contemporary audience.

What elements of the play do you think will resonate most with today’s audiences?

I believe that the experience of beauty is something that will always resonate for people. The feeling of disconnect from ones sense of self, feeling alien in a strange world. When looking at these classic Australian plays, I have to value them for their insights into humanity (or, specifically, a view on humanity). This is much more important than worrying about when the play was written. Audiences can expect to be as warmed by the beauty of the work as they are challenged and confronted by the content.