Richard Pratt. Frank Lowy. Harry Triguboff.
To that constellation of business titans who arrived as post-war migrants to Australia and rose to become captains of industry and billionaires to boot, you can add another name – that of Levi Van De Maar.
Fleeing a ruined Europe, young Levi built up a small garage business in the early 1950s. He went on to become a leading figure in the construction and engineering industries, a man with a finger in all sorts of corporate pies, the head of a sprawling family, a man with strong and public views on morality.
Dead now, Van De Maar leaves behind a business empire to be carved up, a widow (third wife and former secretary Christine) and a sheaf of papers to be published.
Christine (played by Lucy Miller) entrusts what seems like a simple task to family black sheep Frank (Simon Thomson), a guy who can’t quite get his life happening.
The old man’s papers turn out to be quite a surprise.
What everyone assumes will be Van De Maar’s autobiography turns out to be an anthology of whimsically-pornographic escapades, most climaxing in energetic sexual congress with mermaids, elves and mythological beasts.
For small-time publisher Ron Huck (Terry Serio), the papers are a potential goldmine. For Christine, they represent a monumental public relations headache.
For illustrator Sarah (Natalie Murray), the stories are an artistically-admirable window into the soul. And for Frank, who assumes the identity of the writer, they prove to be life changing.
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Written by Alexander Lee-Rekers, Van De Maar Papers is a naturalistic-satirical drama of scope and scale that playfully weaves issues of legacy, reputation and censorship into a story of a young man’s struggle to form an identity separate from that of his family and tread his own path.
The content of the papers themselves – fulsomely quoted in several scenes – is vivid and hilarious. Think Georges Bataille’s History of the Eye meets Norman Lindsay.
Van De Maar Papers is a lot of play to produce on The Old 505’s stage on an indie micro-budget. The staging looks a little naïve at times but director Camilla Turnbull reels the story out efficiently and enjoyably.
The decision to bust up the prevailing naturalism with white-faced “attendants” (Melissa Hume, Jessie Lancaster, Tom Matthews and Sophie Strykowski, playing minor roles) jars a little but it’s no deal breaker and the key roles are well performed, notably by Miller as the steely Christine and Serio as the rakishly seedy Ron.
This is the second iteration of the play (Alexander Berlage directed the first at the Sydney Fringe in 2017) and Van De Maar Papers feels like it could withstand another. There’s work to be done on Frank’s role, I think. It would be fascinating to see what a company with some dramaturgical and production resources could bring to the table.