Martin Portus stars in The Giraffe's Uncle. Photo: Cynthia Sciberras
1. After years as a theatre critic and ABC Radio National arts broadcaster, what attracted you to returning to the stage with this play by Melbourne playwright Kieran Carroll?
I'm very opinionated about the problems with one-man shows, so I was very cautious. You've got to think about addressing the audience very directly, eyeballing them. Our director, Ron Hadley, was very clear that my character's work and desperation be understood, that every line must want something from the audience.
2. The Giraffe's Uncle is named after a collection of short stories by the notorious 1930s Sydney bohemian Les Robinson, who, among other things, had an ideological objection to paying rent. What was he like?
When everybody else was writing about stockmen and kangaroos, his stories were like Monty Python. He was supported by key writers of the time, such as Kenneth Slessor, but pathetically undervalued by the public. He lived in derelict houses or in the caves of Sydney's Middle Harbour. He had a strong sense of social justice, as you'd expect from a man living in a cave.
3. How did you find the right voice for Robinson?
He reminded me of my father, who lived through that period. It was incredibly turbulent, with a string of wars from the Boer War through two world wars to the Korean War. The suffering was terrible. During the Depression, hundreds of men slept each night in The Domain under newspapers. The challenge of playing someone so raw and vulnerable, it was irresistible.
4. Are there fewer eccentrics such as Robinson around these days?
People are much more concerned about taking risks these days, and the range of opinions that are tolerated is much narrower.
5. You're a great history buff; what's your favourite period of Australian history?
The early years of Federation, when we were setting up our social-welfare system, industrial arbitration, women's suffrage - we were so far ahead of Britain and other European countries, I don't think most of us understand what a significant time it was.
6. What would Robinson be doing if he were alive today?
He'd be totally demented. He'd be wandering around his old haunts in Sydney, seeking out the mad editors and cartoonists, wondering why they're all in their offices at their desks when they should be at the pub.
Martin Portus stars in Kieran Carroll's The Giraffe's Uncle at La Mama, Carlton, this week.