The Giraffe’s Uncle

Martin Portus stars in this tight and entertaining one-man show about Les Robinson, the bohemian’s bohemian.
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Only the most informed students of letters will know of Australian author and journalist, Les Robinson. Active in the 1930s, Robinson is more famous for living in caves around Sydney than for his single published volume of short stories, The Giraffe’s Uncle. Robinson was a bohemian’s bohemian. Ethically opposed to paying rent – hence his living quarters – he contributed to The Bulletin, Punch and The Australian Worker, while famed poet Kenneth Slessor supported his fiction.

Experienced actor Martin Portus, back after 30 years absence from the boards, is brilliant as Robinson. Opening night stutters aside, his performance is rich, powerful and nuanced. The one-actor show is theatre’s tightrope and Portus walks it as if it were three-feet wide. With intervals provided by Daryl Emmerson singing period songs (including Slessor’s poetry set to music), The Giraffe’s Uncle is a tight and entertaining production.

This is The Giraffe’s Uncle’s second showing; it debuted in Sydney in 2011. Written by Melbourne playwright Kieran Carroll, the monologue is – given its obscure subject – full of exposition. This is mostly well handled, with Portus providing plenty of colour and mood to ensure Robinson’s backstory is lively. Still, too much of the work is addressed straight to the audience, and the monologue could have done with a sense of live action (the piece feels as if it’s presented entirely as reflection). The script is, however, as subtle as possible given the exposition required, and there’s a gentleness and warmth to it that endears the audience to Robinson.

Director Ron Hadley’s vision is sharply realized. Simple props and lighting are used effectively, and sound effects and voiceovers are kept to a minimum. This allows Portus to shine and the audience to feel the intimacy that the one-person show should allow. Clever, witty and sometimes hilarious use of projected text and film is a highlight. With the level of exposition required, the temptation must have been to do large amounts of it via film. Hadley, however, uses it sparingly and to maximum effect.

The Giraffe’s Uncle gives us a portrait of the avant-garde artist as an old man. Carroll clearly identifies and portrays Robinson’s pathos and regret, while at the same time showing how difficult it would have been for him to choose another path.

Robinson wrote absurdist fiction when the rest of Australia’s writers were carving their names in bark and bush. But Kenneth Slessor saw him as something of a genius and there was some praise from overseas for his writings. The monologue presents us with a man who lived his artistic convictions absolutely. As a result, we can’t help but reflect on the nature of the relationship between artistic integrity and commercial success/social standing. That The Giraffe’s Uncle is presented in a small theatre by a highly experienced actor gives us a dose of irony that ensures it will lives in our minds long after the final, witty projection screens.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

The Giraffe’s Uncle

Director: Ron Hadley

Writer: Kieran Carroll

Performed by: Martin Portus

Set Design: Christina Logan-Bell

Lighting Design: Amelia Lever-Davidson

Costume Design: Julia Young

Stage Operator: Max Russell

Singing: Daryl Emmerson

La Mama Theatre, Carlton

31 January – 10 February

Francis Roberts
About the Author
Francis Roberts is a reviewer for ArtsHub.