Love Thy Neighbour: Neighbourhood Watch at MTC

The critically acclaimed modern masterpiece Neighbourhood Watch will continue to delight audiences at Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) until Saturday 26 April. Aussie Theatre’s Bethany Simons chatted with playwright Lally Katz about writing, relationships and why everybody needs good neighbours.

Lally Katz Photo:  Heidrun Lohr
Lally Katz. Image by Heidrun Lohr

Since seeing Lally Katz’s unforgettable play Neighbourhood Watch at MTC I’ve been seeing the world differently. Katz’s writing is spot-on, slice-of-life funny and moving, Simon Stone’s direction is innovative and sensitive, and Robyn Nevin’s performance as Anna, the eighty year old Hungarian next door, is legendary.

The creative journey of writing this play is nothing short of extraordinary and it all starts with conversation. After meeting briefly in a theatre foyer, Katz became obsessed with finding a tough and funny character to write for Nevin. As it turns out the perfect inspiration was living right across the street. When Katz first spoke to her Hungarian neighbour Anna (pronounced Ana) she immediately knew she had struck gold.

“The minute I met her, I was like: ‘You’! I spent every day with her for about two years. We’re great friends, but I was always researching her as a character.”

Katz heard Anna’s stories over and over again in that two-year period and it is her commitment to the relationship that has resulted in such a rich and instantly recognisable character on stage. “I got to know the rhythm of [Anna’s] words. I got to know her voice and her mind in a way.”

After seeing the show, I was interested to learn that Anna’s text in the script is written in broken English and that Nevin learned the accent with this as a base.

“She is such an amazing performer. She brought her own heart to it and created her own physicality and absolutely built up the performance. It’s been amazing watching her do that.”

At times a writer can find it difficult to release a character into the hands of the actor. Knowing the character of Anna as intimately as Katz did, how did she find the process? “I let go straight away. It’s Robyn Nevin! Whatever she did was going to be amazing. But also I picked a character that would be a good fit for her. There was never any question of me going, ‘Oh no, that’s not right. That’s not her’. It was like a fantastic version of Anna.”

Originally presented by Belvoir in Sydney it seems that, once again, casual conversation was a key to getting Neighbourhood Watch off the ground. “I met with [Belvoir] and said I wanted to write a show for Nevin about my Hungarian neighbour. I spoke as her and they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it’. I didn’t tell Robyn any of this. I didn’t see her for another two years. I was thinking. ‘I hope she wants to do the show!’ We’d had one conversation in a random foyer…”

Why does Katz think audiences respond so strongly to the work?

“When I met Anna the conversation ranged from the really domestic and suburban to World War Two and her father being blown into pieces. It can reach a big audience because it will speak to them of their time now, but also tell a sort of epic world story. Most people know an Anna. She makes people feel connected to other people they know.”

“Whenever I was hanging out with her we would fight and everything, but a lot of the time I was so in love with her, her wording, the crazy-funny things she says. Sometimes when people have English as a second language it’s almost like they speak in really funny poetry. I was always just in love with her words.”

Katz says that though Anna was always aware that her stories were inspiration for a play, she never fully understood it until she saw the Belvoir production. “I would say, ‘You know I write a theatre show about you, Anushka?’ ‘What you tell them? Some rubbish?’ ‘Everything. I tell them everything.'”

As an audience member I was struck by the thought of how many people go through life having lived stories that will never get told. For me Anna represents those who may never be given a voice. Katz agrees saying, “You know how the world of the elderly is sometimes invisible? When I started hanging out with Anna I thought, ‘There are all these people with all these stories!’ So many of them have come from other sides of the world…”

When I asked Katz about her writing style she plunged into a description that made us both laugh heartily.

“My writing style is … it’s a disaster. It’s basically procrastination – cleaning, exercising. The only time I do anything is when the gun is to my head. In the past month I just have to write from early in the morning until late at night and it’s actually a huge relief. I never really believe I’m going to write again until I start doing it. A lot of it is gathering up information in your subconscious.”

Katz is also willing to confess that she often doesn’t know what it is she has written until she hears the actors speaking it in the rehearsal room.

“To be honest, sometimes I forget what I’ve written. I go into such a state! I finish a play and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what’s in there’. A lot of the time you might not realise something is funny or sad. You might have an inkling … but if you’re working with the right people it becomes better than you dreamed.”

After such success does Katz ever doubt herself?

“Every time! I think most writers do. When I’m not writing I’m like, ‘Yeah, I love writing’. Then when it comes time I’m like, ‘I can’t do it, I CAN’T DO IT!’ Sometimes I’ll have to read a play that I’ve written before to remember that I can do it.”

It’s no secret that writing can be a tough gig. Does Katz have any advice for other writers out there?

“I’ve always been around the theatre. I would definitely encourage any writer who works in the theatre to just be around the theatre!”

If Katz’s story is anything to go by you just never know where a conversation may lead you. So, open your eyes. Talk to people. And whatever you do, don’t miss your chance to meet the neighbours.

Neighbourhood Watch
MTC Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Until Saturday 26 April
Tickets and information:

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