{PROOF} at Parkdale Confirms Playwrights’ Power To Confront & Explore Important Themes

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Shirley Burke Theatre’s Current Production

Last night, my friend and fellow scribe, Lisa Hill attended our local theatre to enjoy {PROOF} by playwright, director and screenwriter, David Auburn. It’s a drama I’d recommend and you only have another week to grab a seat!

This is one of the best productions I’ve attended since Lisa invited me to be her ‘play buddy’ and buy a yearly ticket to Shirley Burke’s 2019 series. Other reviews of ones I’ve enjoyed this year are here and here.

Now officially an aged pensioner supporting local theatre a joyful pastime and helps ensure an accessible art scene in Kingston. There have been several mixed outings this year: some scripts and/or acting better than others, but last night was a triumph for the actors and an interesting script.

The prize-winning play written two decades ago raises relevant and timeless issues, explores the human condition to provide that all-important conflict necessary for memorable art. 

playwright of proof

{PROOF} examines family relationships, sibling rivalry, the stress of being a carer, grief, mental illness, hereditary disease, gender equality, the fine line between brilliance and madness, and most importantly, trust and its importance for a healthy relationship!

The title, encased in parentheses alludes to the mathematical motif running through the plot and characters.

One of the four characters, Robert (Peter Hatherley), is a mathematics genius suffering an indeterminate mental illness – not an easy role to play but he handles it well.

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Hal (Chris Hill) an ex-student of Robert’s is going through Robert’s notebooks hoping to discover another great mathematical theory, Catherine (JaneLeckie), Robert’s daughter has inherited his genius and perhaps his mental illness – a fear alluded to and voiced.

A notebook with a new groundbreaking theory becomes the centre of contention causing conflict between Hal and Catherine, and Catherine and her sister Claire (Samantha Stone).

Who wrote the entries and when? How do you establish authenticity? Who will gain from the notebook’s contents?

Jokes about maths geeks dispelling their nerdy image of being plain, boring or weird provide several laughs in a play tackling the fragility and frailty of the human mind, body, and spirit.

Serendipity or Coincidence?

Yesterday was R U OK Day? with all forms of media and health bodies promoting increased awareness of mental health. Mental illness was a strong theme in the play with the character, Robert suffering an unnamed condition. The audience learns he often disconnects from reality and displays paranoia.

I doubt I was alone in seeing the similarity between Robert’s psychosis and that of John Forbes Nash, diagnosed with schizophrenia and played by Russell Crowe in the movie, A Brilliant Mind. 

Both characters portrayed as brilliant mathematicians but in {PROOF} the audience is left wondering about Robert’s illness …

… the oft-quoted line by Oscar Levant (1906-1972) springs to mind, There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

Another theme explored in the play is the role of carers and with an ageing population, regardless of whether healthy or sick, it’s a hot topic.

Do you care at home or put the person in an institution? What is the toll on the carer? Catherine has sacrificed her education and career to look after father, Robert. A sacrifice her sister Claire didn’t agree with and it is Claire who pays the bills for the upkeep of the house and Robert’s care.

Several poignant scenes in the play occur when the sisters, Catherine and Claire (Samantha Stone) argue about the wisdom of keeping Robert at home and whether the fragile Catherine needs to be cared for if she has inherited her father’s ‘condition’ – whatever that is – and Claire’s insistence Catherine return with her to New York after the father’s funeral so the house can be sold.

There were several scenes where anger demanded and all the actors were persuasive in their portrayals coming across as authentic, which can be hard to do with extreme emotions.

Catherine goes through the full gamut of emotions and Jane Leckie did a superb job with a minimum of make-up – her facial expressions and body language captured grief, fear, anger, disappointment, sadness, distrust, playfulness and joy – to the extent when final bows were made with her hair loose and a beaming smile it could have been a different person on stage!

Peter Hatherley’s, Robert suitably mercurial and feisty using the space on stage to good effect with expansive gestures hinting at his younger self’s confident brilliance and older self’s celebratory status but unsteady at times to remind us of his illness.

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Plenty in this play to feed private reflection and reminiscing about family responsibilities, loyalty and relationships, the opportunities and positions available for women in academia, the strain of caring for those you love when they become unlovable, and the profound, debilitating, and often unpredictable effects of grief.

The Gender Card & Generational Divide

Bearing in mind, the play is 20 years old, you don’t expect an exploration of the recent complex debates around gender to be a major theme, but there is a strong acknowledgement of the omission of ‘herstory’ in {PROOF}.

Debates on important issues demand lots of conversations in the community and it’s no secret that for years the sciences excluded women.  The situation resulting in efforts to address school curriculums, and increased encouragement of women to study mathematics and associated fields.

The issue is dealt with on stage with an interesting conversation between Hal and Catherine both in their twenties, both maths geeks, both quirky and socially awkward in their own way. The underlying romantic tension between the pair an interesting sub-story and the physical and verbal interactions between them believable and well-executed by Jane Leckie and Chris Hill.

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The play tackles the generational divide with Hal suggesting maths is ‘a young man’s game’, and even Robert mentions it is important to achieve early success to compete.

Hal reveals attending conferences and observing drug use (alcohol and LSD) and that some older men need a drug like Speed to keep their mind sharp and racing because of fears creativity has peaked in their early twenties!

Robert’s illness started in his mid-twenties and Hal who is twenty-eight fears the chance to be as brilliant and famous as Robert has passed him by.  However, if he can decipher Robert’s notebooks and perhaps discover something new… perhaps produce that great leap of the mind and experimentation that renders mathematicians awesome.

Hal believes all creative mathematicians who come up with original work are men, especially young men who are at their peak in their early twenties, but after probing by Catherine acknowledges there was a woman at Stanford University, he can’t remember her name.

Sophie Germain?’ Catherine suggests.

Hal pauses for a moment as if remembering, and replies, ‘…I’ve probably seen her at meetings, but haven’t met her…’

‘She was born in Paris in 1776,’ is Catherine’s droll comment.

‘So I’ve definitely met her,’ Hal replies with a grin.

Amidst this humour, Catherine delivers a lesson on Sophie Germain surviving the French Revolution’s Terror by hiding in her father’s study and reading. Later, formal education denied because she was a female, she furthered her education by personal study but only got noticed for her work on prime numbers when she corresponded with learned men under the male pseudonym, Antoine August Le Blanc.

Catherine explained how her father gave her the book about Sophie to read and encouraged her to study – another hint that she shared her father’s love, perhaps obsession of math. 

Hal admits his ignorance and stupidity – he has studied Germain Primes.

There is an exchange of numbers, equations and sums in their conversation similar to one Catherine had with her father at the beginning of the play and Hal starts to understand Catherine has talent, but as if threatened, he stops adding and extending figures and instead queries if Sophie’s ruse was ever discovered by Gauss, the most famous of her correspondents.

Catherine recites a long passage from a letter she has memorised where Gauss recognised the extraordinary talents of Sophie and her difficulties and courage revealing her genius to a world dominated by men.

Hal’s reaction is to kiss Sophie and then apologise for being ‘ a little drunk’!

The budding romance between Catherine and Hal is a roller-coaster ride in the play – trust shattered along with Catherine’s composure when Hal doubts her honesty and even seems to go along with Claire’s suggestion that Catherine is mentally unstable.

The kindled romance dissolved by an explosive row, reignited in an uneasy truce, perhaps understanding and acceptance, but we are left to write their future.

Stagecraft & Setting

The various set designs I’ve seen this year at Shirley Burke have been impressive – the team who build the sets deserve congratulations. It is a small intimate theatre, therefore, the stage has limitations, yet they ‘come up trumps’ every time.

Like a short story, nothing in a play, including set and props, must be there unless it advances the plot or contributes to the storyline.

{PROOF} is yet another play set in the USA but thankfully the American accents did not jar as much as earlier plays this year.

Every scene is set on the back verandah (porch) of a house near the University of Chicago where Robert’s genius is revered and where he taught before his initial ‘breakdown’ and later descent into ill health.

The confined space is not glamorous and a scattering of dead leaves suggests autumn and in another scene winter – a metaphor for Robert’s ageing and death? The need for regrowth and change? Catherine’s sacrifice and confinement for years as she cared for her father, but a promise of better things to come?

Playwriting like screenwriting is a collaborative art, for results you require the sets, actors, lighting, sound, stagecraft and direction to gel … this production of {PROOF} ticks all the boxes.

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The drabness of the porch relieved by the glimpse of the interior of the house through glass doors and at Robert’s wake the light is suitably bright accompanied by party music so we get a sense there are others inside.

Scene changes are heralded by various mood-appropriate music, the most memorable being a discordant, noisy band number after Hal admits he is with a group of fellows from the math department who play in a bar. Their signature act called ‘i’ lower case and they stand without playing anything for three minutes.

A math joke which Catherine guesses, ‘Imaginary Number?’

There are successful flashback scenes too (and a ghost scene, when grieving Catherine ‘talks’ to her father after his death).

These are often difficult to deliver effectively on stage and can be confusing for an audience to follow, but are handled well.

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Like all good dramas, Act 1 ends with a shock announcement, which gave us plenty to talk about over Interval!

An Irrelevant Aside?

It’s interesting what actions resonate with members of an audience.

The play opens with twenty-five-year-old Catherine curled asleep in a chair on the verandah. Her father, Robert wakes her up – it has just gone midnight and now officially her birthday. He has a bottle of champagne, which she insists on popping because last time he broke a window! (The first chuckle/laugh in the play.)

Catherine pops the champagne cork like a waitress serving at a high table keeping the cork under control. She proceeds to swig at the contents while conversing with her father who we learn has been unwell but now believes he is okay and is convincing her to return to study.

Because of my lived experience waitressing throughout university student days in Canberra and later travelling in Scotland, I know how to open a bottle of champagne in a confined space without letting a wayward cork hit a person or an object and yet still retain that satisfying “POP” everyone expects. It is an acquired skill, so well done Jane Leckie for not hitting a member of the cast or audience!

Another memorable moment in the play is when Hal discovers a page in one of Robert’s notebooks where he recognizes Catherine has kept him from being institutionalised (what Claire wanted) and has saved his life by caring for him. ‘Where does her strength come from? I can never repay her?’

My father had dementia and was eventually institutionalised for his own and my mother’s safety but in his lucid moments, he often uttered similar sentiments.

When the play ended, the audience gave well-deserved extended applause and Lisa and I both agreed it has been the best production we have seen this year.

I picked up a flyer advertising the next production and considering the shenanigans in the UK (is life imitating art?) it seems a timely production to end the year with a few belly laughs and the absurdities of ‘the human condition’.

If you can’t get to see {PROOF} perhaps book early to be “Out of Order‘!

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Mr Bailey’s Minder -a play about growing old disgracefully, being disgracefully old… and something much deeper!

noticeboard for play

On Saturday, I went to the matinee session of the Mordialloc Theatre Company’s latest play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale.

My theatre buddy, Lisa cancelled because of ill-health but I am glad I didn’t let that or the wintry weather, which caused sudden and severe squalls, to convince me to stay at home in the warmth – although it was tempting!

Now I’m ‘retired’ it is easier to stay at home, especially in winter and by the demographics I’ve observed who support the MTC and the smattering of empty seats on Saturday, the cold weather and perhaps the lethargy of age took its toll, which is a pity.

The play was enjoyable, the ambience in the theatre welcoming, and you get free coffee/tea and biscuits at the interval.

In fact, if so inclined you can buy a glass of wine or sherry before the play starts. Saturday definitely, chilly so I’m not surprised many people took that option.

See this play and support your local theatre

Mr Bailey’s Minder is on until the end of the week!

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Of the three productions I’ve seen this year, this definitely gets a thumbs up from me and considering the response of the audience, others also agree.

  • Maybe it is because this is the first one this year by an Australian playwright and so the actors didn’t have fake American or Canadian accents.
  • Maybe it’s because I can relate more to the themes which are not only current and relevant but emotionally engaging.
  • Maybe it’s because of the actors – apart from a bit of nervousness at the beginning, their interactions were believable and entertaining.

This is the promo blurb:


blurb for play

However, discussing the play at the interval with one of the volunteers another lady joined the conversation and when I said the subject matter was interesting and topical she said, ‘Ah yes, elder abuse.’

A reflection perhaps because we are in the middle of a Royal Commission into how we treat people in Aged Care and there are stories galore about abuse in the media.

But Mr Bailey’s Minder is much more than a story about someone growing old and being mistreated or fearing mistreatment.

All the major characters in the play have fears and emotional scars – not just Mr Bailey.

We are all ageing or know someone who is and if we live long enough must face declining health and death.

We all have or will have a life to reflect on with good and bad decisions, successful or unsuccessful relationships, haunting memories of the warm glow kind or filled with regret.

Many of us have had experience with someone in the family coping with alcoholism and/or dementia and family estrangement is common too.

The play mines a rich field of life experiences.

Therese, as the title suggests, is the ‘Minder’ or carer, and frequently, takes centre stage. Her story, one of a need to belong and be valued – and to value herself – a contrast to Leo’s life of celebrity status where being a ‘famous artist’ resulted in Leo overvaluing himself! (as others did too!)

scenes from play 2

Leo Bailey (Eric Hayes) is a drunken ‘has-been’ artist suffering from decades of alcohol abuse and self-indulgent misbehaviour. He’s offended, hurt or neglected friends, several ex-wives and all but one of his children. His past is confronting – what he can remember of it, or how he remembers it, which varies depending on his mood or awareness.

Now he is facing death – and he is astute enough to know it will probably be alone.  He must also cope with the realisation that he’s lost some of his artistic abilities yet boasts how valuable his signature still is – even on a blank piece of paper (be intrigued).

Only his daughter, Margo (Juliet Hayday) continues to visit him and manage his affairs, despite being subjected to a barrage of abuse every time she steps into Leo’s home.

Margo has remained dutiful although she can’t escape the bitterness of unhappy memories of childhood spoilt by her celebrity father’s behaviour.

In the opening scene, the much-maligned Margo meets Therese (Julia Landberg), a young woman desperate for work and the latest in a long list of Leo Bailey’s minders.

We learn how ill Leo is, about his obnoxious behaviour, plus how dementia has heightened his disagreeableness.

Margo who works in investment banking does not ‘pull any punches’ regarding her father. In fact, she repeats the well-worn cliches –

  • Old people abandoned in nursing homes must look no further than their own past behaviour.
  • Abusive drunks reveal their true self – it’s never just the drink talking.
  • Adults must take responsibility for their behaviour whether they’re a celebrity or not

Therese, cagey about her past, is worried Margo will check her references. She doesn’t expect to get the job, yet in her desperation behaves alternately, belligerent and defensive. She is feisty and a survivor.

Leo comes downstairs, he is at his alcohol-sodden best, insulting Margo and Therese and accusing them of wanting to take his home and independence.

Disagreeable is an understatement.

(Interestingly, “Leo’s” lines or actions alternated between outrageous, wily astuteness and downright insulting, but a group in the audience loudly appreciated Eric’s performance – indicative that the actor who is a Life member of MTC has a following!)

The final major player to add to the emotionally scarred cast appears later.

Karl (Aaron Townley) a tradie who comes to remove a mural and repair a wall. His life is as difficult and broken as the others. He’s paying off a debt caused by an ex-business partner and recovering from a marriage breakdown caused by same debt.

Needy and lonely,  Karl continues to visit to do odd jobs after establishing a friendship with Leo and Therese who manages to get her charge to give up drinking and begin to make amends to those he has mistreated by writing letters of apology. They even start going out and visiting parks and museums.

Of course, there are sub-plots and a minor character (also played by Aaron) who will make your blood boil and an all-important twist that good drama provides.

The necessary conflict to keep an audience interested is delivered – with a couple of realistic physical scenes, which had me worried because Eric wasn’t using make-up to age!

Each character also revealed an inner conflict through actions or dialogue at some stage.

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The Playwright, Debra Oswald. 

Wikipedia tells us that Debra Oswald is a screenwriter, playwright and fiction author. She was the co-creator and head writer for series 1-5 of the award-winning Channel Ten series Offspring

Mr Bailey’s Minder and The Peach Season both premiered at Griffin Theatre Company. Mr Bailey’s Minder toured nationally in 2006 and premiered in the United States in 2008 at The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. 

When it was first released, a review said, the play

grapples with how much latitude we’re prepared to give artists we consider to be blessed with some kind of genius. It also explores the separate journeys of three individuals committed to creating a place where they can belong.

The play may also promote discussion about past behaviour and caring for ageing parents whether they were celebrities or not.

The worship of celebrity, of course, seems to have intensified in recent years. A prime example is in the acting profession where TV creates celebrities frequently, with actors who study the craft and perform on stage often overlooked or not given the recognition, they may deserve.

In this social media age celebrities flourish, however, in the future they may pay the price for their behaviour much earlier or burn out quicker.

The publicity social media gives that makes it easier to make celebrity status, also makes it easier to punish or shatter a celebrity. And with the Internet – everything is on record whether it has been edited, doctored, embellished, made up…

Plus we have an ageing population. Debra’s play will remain topical and relevant for some time.

Stagecraft and Set Design

scene from play 1

The set design and construction depicting Bailey’s disintegrating home above Sydney Harbour is eye-catching and memorable. Martin Gibbs, the Director and set designer is to be congratulated.

The various scene changes facilitated seamlessly by three exits – a door through to a kitchenette, the ‘front’ door and a staircase that led to the bedrooms and much-mentioned bathroom. The music accompanying each scene change setting the relevant mood and the lighting used to great effect to signal the passing of time and a new day.

So, add a bit of spice or emotional angst to your day and catch a session of Mr Bailey’s Minder you won’t be disappointed and it will do what all good art does – make you confront various aspects of the human condition – especially your own.

PS

A note of caution – if like me, you have experienced a loved one whose personality changed because of dementia, ageing, or a combination of both, or have experienced family estrangement, make sure you have a tissue in your pocket… you never know what triggers an emotional moment… this play just might hit the spot.

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Underground – an exploration of what lies beneath the surface of a war hero

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Nancy Wake, WW2 Hero

On Thursday night, I attended Underground, a play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale – a great venue within walking distance of my home in Mordialloc, but also opposite the Parkdale Railway Station.

When I arrived home, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my daughter.

‘What a wonderful evening! It made me glad to be a writer – so inspiring. An original interpretation… makes me want to write… keep trying different ways of telling great stories!’

‘Glad you’re so happy, Mum. Obviously, much better than your last experience,’ Mary Jane observed.

Yes, I’ve reached the stage where if I don’t like a play or film, or a book, I don’t force myself to see it through to the end and a couple of months ago, my friend Lisa and I walked out of the same theatre at the interval.  We preferred sharing a coffee and chatting to returning for the second half!

‘Indeed,’ I answered, ‘but… this production was clever, well-acted, and focused. A fantastic retelling of a powerful story about a truly heroic and intriguing woman – who so many people don’t know anything about – you included!’

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A Great Night At The Theatre A Much-needed Injection Of Joy

With my own writing in the doldrums, it was a change to feel happy and invigorated about writing. I wanted to talk about the story, the production, presentation, the acting, the stagecraft …

There is a wonderful feeling of elation when you watch a play or a film and it affects you that way. Just like the satisfaction of finishing a good book or short story.

You relish the experience, wish it hadn’t ended, want to prolong the ideas, emotions, and memories stirred. You’re ready for a discussion or to revisit a second show, a replay or reread.

There is no mystery as to why book clubs, and film and theatre appreciation groups thrive.

I missed out getting a copy of the programme – they ran out – but the lady next to me retrieved her folded copy from her bag and I snapped a shot with my phone camera.

The eclectic list of supporters thanked is interesting and indicative of the importance of this work in the wider community as well as the art world.

  • Professor Graeme Wake, a distant relative of Nancy who had joined efforts to see her honoured by New Zealand, said her death was a sad day for the country.
  • Anthony Crowley, multi-award-winning playwright
  • Michael Brindley, writer Stage Whispers
  • The Hon Tim Fischer, retired politician, leader of National Party 1990-1999
  • Uschi Felix -a versatile actress professionally trained in Germany and Australia
  • Josh Burns Labor candidate for the new Federal seat of Macnamara
  • Marisa Cesario, Programming Coordinator at Gasworks Arts Parks
  • Tamara Jungwirth, Director and CEO of Gasworks Arts Park

The Writer, Christine Croyden’s Note

Nancy Wake (1912-2011), now as The White Mouse (die Weisse Maus) left Sydney for Paris at eighteen and became a celebrated WW2 spy. She was one of only thirteen female special agents to survive the war.

My interest in her story began in 2015 when I wrote the book and lyrics for a musical The White Mouse, licensed by DSP in Sydney. In 2017, I spent six months as a resident with a theatre company in Paris where my interest in the French resistance and the German Occupation of France reignited. During this time I wrote Underground.

I describe it as a hallucinatory view of Nancy’s life.

Nancy was never keen on anyone messing with her story and hated all films, TV series and almost everything that was ever written about her, so I doubt she’d like my play.

However, I hope the small grains of truth contained within this fictionalised drama illuminate her complexity. Nancy Wake was (and still is) often referred to as a ‘difficult woman’.

She was not recognised for her efforts during WW2 in Australia until very late in her long life, despite her bravery and the admiration of the French for her contribution to their Resistance and subsequent Liberation.

In a culture where we are finally beginning to recognise women for what they do rather than how they look or behave, I feel Underground has something to say.

Christine Croyden, February 2019.

portrait of Nancy Wake

The above portrait is a rare picture of Nancy wearing some of the honours she received:

  • The George Medal,
  • 1939-45 Star,
  • the France and Germany Star,
  • the Defence Medal,
  • the British War Medal 1939-45,
  • the Croix de Guerre with Palm and Bar,
  • the Croix de Guerre with Star,
  • the US Medal for Freedom with Palm
  • the French Medaille de la Resistance
  • and she is an Officer of the Legion d’Honneur.

Underground has a lot to say and the execution by superb actors – especially Margot Knight – was impressive.

The technique of having an aged Nancy reflect on her life just before another ceremony lauding her war service, and having other actors portray the flashbacks on stage, sometimes with the older Nancy interacting, worked extremely well.

Margot Knight stayed in character throughout – her slower movements, facial expressions and word delivery never faltered. She was Nancy!  Her memories a bit addled from age, grief, and her love of Gin, but with such clear and believable delivery.

Nancy Wake was in her 99th year when she died. Her life before, during, and after the war could fill volumes.

Christine Croyden’s attempt to capture the essence of this complicated human being deserves high praise.

The ‘White Mouse’ helped countless people escape death and torture in Occupied France. On the Nazi’s ‘Most Wanted’ list she earned the moniker White Mouse because of her elusiveness. after effective operations against the enemy.

When she managed to escape to England she trained as a spy and was parachuted back into danger despite knowing the consequences if she was caught. Her French husband, Henri was tortured and murdered by the Nazis.

Nancy earned the reputation of being strong mentally, physically and emotionally – legend has her killing a man with her bare hands and executing a German agent by shooting her in the back of the head.

Underground tells us the highlights of Nancy’s life focusing mainly on the WW2 era and the drama is enhanced by song and choreography.

The story of Nancy Wake’s exploits as spy and hero are well-documented with several online links containing excellent detail. There is some repetition and the usual discrepancies regarding dates and other information because most of the articles reflect the paucity of resources available.

Everyone agrees that for a very long time Nancy Wake was ignored/neglected in a way no male war hero ever suffered.

Nancy Wake on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Wake

Nancy Wake – the girls who spied: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/fierce-girls/nancy-wake-the-girl-who-spied/9485892

Nancy Wake OA – Education Services Australia: https://www.civicsandcitizenship.edu.au/cce/nancy_wake,17565.html

Nancy Wake, A larrikin and a hero: http://www.convictcreations.com/history/nancywake.htm

National Portrait Gallery – Capturing TheMouse
Nancy Wake – The White Mouse, 2001 by Melissa Beowulf: https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/13/capturing-the-mouse

My Mother was a huge fan of telling the stories of women’s contribution because she felt ‘herstory’ important. It was Mum who bought me a book on Joan of Arc, The Maid of France, the French author Collette and Nancy’s book which was first released in the 1980s. Mum encouraged me to read widely and seek the untold or rarely told stories.

I read the autobiography and later when studying at university, bought a biography written in 1956 about Nancy by Russell Braddon who had been a POW of the Japanese. A prolific author, he suffered a mental breakdown several years after the war, which doctors attributed to his war experiences.

The effect of trauma and the horrendous violence people witness and become part of during a war and how it may change your attitude and personality, and most certainly your outlook on life is explored in Underground. 

The stresses and effect of the journey of other characters and their relationships with Nancy included.

However, it is the price Nancy paid for her courage and persistence and the price she saved others from paying that you think about long after the play is over.

There was a TV series starring the brilliant Noni Hazelhurst as Nancy a few years ago too and a couple of documentaries worth following up.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

That question of WHY concerning human behaviour is difficult to answer and because all of us are complex with varying degrees of experiences, different backgrounds and perspectives with various wants and needs, it is an eternal conundrum to be explored.

The ‘human condition’ a topic most writers of every genre are drawn to explore.

To dissect, and attempt to understand… Scottish poet, Rabbie Burns said, ‘the moving why they do it‘… It may be an unanswerable question.

… To step aside is human:

One point must still be greatly dark,

The moving Why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark,

How far perhaps they rue it…

from Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous by Robert Burns

Christine Croyden has succeeded in tackling that bastion of male stories – heroism during wartime, with Underground. Succeeded shedding a little light on the motivation of Nancy Wake and her legacy.

The Allied authorities acknowledged Nancy’s exuberant spirits and physical daring but thought she was just ‘good for morale’ whereas the men and women on the ground who saw her in action formed a different opinion.

“She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”

one of Nancy’s WW2 comrades she Captained

It is a contemporary play with a powerful beginning which gives a nod to Nancy’s New Zealand roots when the aged Nancy performs the Māori haka – a memorable visual feast.

A creative way of declaring her birthplace and links to a proud warrior race plus the profound links between Australia and New Zealand through the commemoration of ANZAC.

Nancy’s pre-war career as a journalist is used to good effect too and employing poetic licence we hear Nancy describe the horrific events of the 1938 Kristallnacht while recounting her experience of going to Vienna in 1933 to interview Adolph Hitler.

Nancy witnessed the ill-treatment of the Jewish population and the emotional rendition by Margot Knight leaves you in no doubt why Nancy dedicated her life to fighting the Nazis.

The playwright has drawn on all the available information but Margot Knight gives us insight into the horror’s effect on a young Nancy who wrote about her visit to Vienna.

“The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels. They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I’ll do it.’ And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war.”

Nancy Wake went on to become the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman, eventually collecting bravery awards from France, England, Australia and the United States.

In answer to being overlooked, she said of Australian authorities, ‘they can stick their award and be thankful it’s not a pineapple’.

Australia was slow to acknowledge her contribution but New Zealand is still to officially acknowledge their ‘daughter’ despite the efforts of a relative Professor Graeme Wake.

Professor Wake who met up with Nancy in 1990 said:

When I met her she was always adamant she was a New Zealander, she kept her New Zealand passport right through to when I met her and I believe beyond…

She never lived much of her life in New Zealand and left as a small child, when she was taken by her parents to Australia and hardly came back…

I believe she made one fleeting visit as a youngster to see her father before she went to Europe …

She was a forthright person, very direct on her views, clear on her views.  You knew exactly where you stood with her… a toughness of spirit which you can only admire.  

So Many Stories Still to be Told

Other Nancy quotes:

I hate wars and violence, but if they come I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.’

‘I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it.’

She is also reported to have said she hoped to go down in history as the woman who turned down 7,000 sex-starved Frenchmen! 

Perhaps her personality and attitude came from a tough early life when her journalist father returned to New Zealand deserting his wife and six children.

She was certainly no shrinking violet or demure lady often portrayed as the norm.

Nancy was a nurse in Australia during the early 1930s but harboured dreams of a different life and when she inherited money from an aunt left for Europe as soon as could be arranged.

What would her life have been like if no world war?

Nurse, ambulance driver, journalist, spy, commando, war hero, would-be politician…

Underground is a great play but it sparks interest and shines a light on a host of other stories deserving to be told about Nancy and many others from that era.

The play is an inspiration for telling stories in an entertaining and memorable way and I hope it returns to Kingston and more people take the opportunity to see it.

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Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

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I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher  – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.

My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.

We both attended The Script Club at The Channel, a studio in the Victorian Arts Centre a couple of years ago, where we discussed classic Australian plays in a series of workshops facilitated by respected writer and drama critic, John McCallum.

What better play for us to see together than one advertised as 

A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.

It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?

With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.

This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.

Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.

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The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.

Ironically, this week one of the most well-known asylum seekers incarcerated on Manus Island for six years has been awarded the richest literature prize in Australia, plus a smaller non-fiction prize  – a total of $125,000 – and sparking a bitter debate about the what and who is “ Australian”. 

Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!

Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?

Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.

It is catastrophic events like war, civil disturbances, attempted genocide, mass inequality and natural disasters that cause refugees, like the current caravan fleeing multiple crises in Central America.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

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The Power of Stagecraft

Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.

All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly. 

These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.

In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.

The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.

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Melbourne’s Art precinct – how lucky are we?

The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.

Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud,  almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.

The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.

While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.

A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.

Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.

I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.

Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.

What Influenced/Inspired The Play?

Ben explained, that in 2015 during the Canadian election, he was watching Canada’s Prime Minister give a speech where he referred to ‘Old Stock’ Canadians to distinguish them from recently arrived immigrants and refugees.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.

The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)

Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.

“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.

“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”

But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!

Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911.  “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”

The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.

On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Playwright, Hannah Moscovitch joined Ben and Christian on the project. Although she is writing about the past and her great-grandparents, she also addresses mass migrations today and the people and countries who oppose and/or resent those migrants. She is also a playwright unafraid of making the personal political.

Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).

This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)

The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.

When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.

From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.

One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.

The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived. 

Will they be allowed into Canada?  Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?

The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing)  about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.

What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?

When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?

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From Santa Barbara History department

The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…

If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?

People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.

To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.

Simone de Beauvoir once said:

It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.

I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.

 

 

 

 

A Visit to Hotel Sorrento A Must For Writers

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Last Thursday night I had the pleasurable experience of catching up with an ex-student and a current student at a performance of Hotel Sorrento at the Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale.

It was a dark and chilly night (notice I didn’t say stormy!) as I walked from Mordialloc to meet my fellow writers. With the portent of heavy rain in the air I admit thoughts of the sensibility of hibernation during winter crossed my mind – perhaps the bears have got it right!

However, the warmth of friendship and Scottish canniness won (supporting live theatre comes at a price, albeit a reasonable one)… and I just walked more briskly towards the golden opportunity to experience a form of creativity and writing I love, and the promise of meaningful dissections afterwards over coffee.

(One of my students, Lena –  actor/singer/writer/entertainer knew a cast member – and it was wonderful to have insights from the actor’s point of view, plus learn a little about ‘life on the road’ from a performer’s perspective.)

Hotel Sorrento returned to Shirley Burke Theatre as part of HIT Productions twenty-year anniversary tour to suburban and regional venues.  A thank you to the City of Kingston for upgrading and maintaining this great venue!

A classic and much-loved Australian story, Hotel Sorrento won several awards and strongly resonated with audiences:

  • Winner 1990 AWGIE Award – Stage Award
  • Winner 1990 NSW Premier’s Literary Award – Drama
  • Winner 1990 Green Room Award – Best Play

Richard Franklin even turned it into a film in 1995 and it has been chosen for school curriculums.

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Lena took a selfie and included yours truly.

What makes this drama so popular?

The play tells the story of the reunion of three sisters who grew up in the seaside town of Sorrento, Victoria. The “hotel” is the nickname for the family home where the verandah was a popular gathering spot for the father and his mates to drink after fishing trips.

Hilary still lives in the family home with her father, Wal and 16-year-old son, Troy. Her husband died when Troy was only six years old and she stayed in the family home, subsequently nursing her mother through cancer and now looking after her father who has a history of heart trouble.

Another sister, Pippa, an independent businesswoman, is visiting from New York and the third sister, Meg, is a successful writer, whose novel Melancholy is short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. She returns from England with her English husband, after a ten-year absence.

When the three sisters are reunited they face the expectations and constraints of family life, not helped by the sudden death of their father, Wal. Meg’s semi-autobiographical book triggers underlying familial tensions, miscommunications and ‘unfinished business’. 

Although a play about family, the ties that bind, the strength and weakness of collective and individual memory and the importance of communicating, Hotel Sorrento is also distinctly Australian.  There are words and phrases, humour, cultural references and the exploration of the age-old rivalry with England and the perceived influence and pull of the UK regarding art and artistic endeavours. And considering the majority of Australia’s population live within 100 kilometres of the coastline, the setting is one easily identifiable to Australians and a setting we are renowned for internationally.

The play premiered on stage, almost three decades and another world away from the Australia of 2018, yet as the playwright, Hannah Rayson reflected in 2015:

Hotel Sorrento was a play I wrote very early in my writing life. I think it is structurally flawed and expresses much of my inexperience as a dramatist. I have written a lot of plays since then and got better at the craft.

But there is something about this play. I wrote it with utter love and tenderness. I had a baby during the writing process and that added to a sense of dreaminess and perfect serenity. It was a journey of the soul, and even though I now think it’s clunky in part, it’s strange because actors, directors and audiences love it. It is my most produced play. It has had hundreds of productions. And the royalty cheques from it have saved my bacon on more than one occasion. It has a certain magic that I like to think comes from the happiness in which it was written.

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

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Taking our seats

The audience at Parkdale agreed the play has a ‘certain magic,’ everyone laughed and applauded in the right places with interval abuzz with conversations. As is usual at these events the women outnumbered the men and I can imagine many of us were like actor/writer Kate Mulvaney who wondered what sister they identified with most!

I’m a writer from a small Australian country town who took off as far away as possible – to as many places as possible – to live and work. And one of my pieces just happened to be a (semi) ‘autobiographical’ piece. And the characters just happened to be based on my family members – their names changed. And I had also just happened to contend with a prodding press on how my family responded, and I found myself sitting at dinner tables as those very family members discussed ‘what was true and what wasn’t’.

I, like Meg, also got asked to partake in countless forums on ‘women in autobiography’ and deal with people assuming, as a female writer, that my play (legitimate, in my mind) was some form of extended ‘diary entry’, and would I ‘ever consider writing something fictional?’

And so I am Meg.

Who are you?

Are you Hilary – the broken but coping carer?

Are you Pippa – the feisty but sentimental younger sister?

Are you Wal – representing the old Australia that gets away with its violent past through its infective jingoism, embracing your own cultural stereotype?

Or Edwin – blindly intelligent and culturally bewildered?

Are you Troy – the truth-seeker and heartbreaking hope-giver?

Or maybe Dick – the belligerent, topsy-turvy patriot?

Or perhaps you are Marge – keenly entertaining them all, just trying to enjoy the art?

First published in 2014 by Currency Press as ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’.

How Do You Write  “Australian”? Is There Individual versus Cultural Identity…?

“Hotel Sorrento is a powerful new Australian play that begins as a comedy about national identity and develops into a familial drama of great poignancy and reverberation.” 

Peter Craven, The Australian

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It is important to retain and represent whatever language and customs we have that is different from American or British productions, and not always succumb to please their audiences.

It was refreshing to hear a familiar place or lifestyle described. This pleasure captured in the opening scene as the character Marge Morrisey reads from the novel Melancholy and excitedly points out the landmarks mentioned and makes the connection that she lives where the novel is set and is seeing what the author describes…

This triggered a memory for me of taking my teenage daughters to see Candy (2006), a Heath Ledger movie set in Australia, and they commented afterwards it was wonderful to hear Aussie accents, see familiar cars and street names, and even Aussie dollars! 

There is an undeniable Australian flavour about Rayson’s play, which is part of its appeal – even if some of the cliches in the dialogue are a bit outdated and inserted for the comedy value.

It doesn’t matter that many Australians have indeed moved on from the ‘cultural cringe’ every second academic talked about in the 80s (the period span of the play) because some people still participate in cutting ‘tall poppies’ to size, and other references to feminism and sexism are sadly still very much in the news.

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Note the ironing board on the left!

Something that Rayson has mastered throughout her writing canon is exploring truth – personal, familial, social, sexual, cultural. And nothing tells us the truth more than a mirror. Rayson uses metaphorical mirroring throughout the text of Hotel Sorrento… she layers and layers and layers each truth until it warps dizzyingly and shifts our search as a reader and a viewer. On a glassy sea, the Moynihan family gather. They argue whether to keep a sentimental painting of their town on the wall or take it down.

The three sisters – Hil, Meg and Pippa, see mirrors of themselves and images of their potential – good and bad – in the faces of each other. They see their mother in an iron – a steaming ghost still working away in the corner of the room. A brilliant representation of a female in the shadow of the 1950s Australian landscape – smoothing out the family creases whilst ageing slowly, dying relatively young, unhappy, ‘outlived by the iron’. The sisters lament their mother strangely, almost flippantly:

‘Life sucks’, says Pippa.

‘We loved him more than we ever loved her’, says Hil, referring to their father Wal, who she also said was ‘a bastard to our mother’.

‘She’d be here night after night on her own’, says Pippa. ‘Always got the rough end of the stick, our Mum…’

And this is where I shudder. I mourn for this dead woman. I’m aware of her world – I see her type amongst my own family.

Essay, by Kate Mulvany, first published as ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ Currency Press 2014

This early scene in the kitchen (the only room of the family home shown and obviously the hub – how true is that for most families!?) connected with me.

I’m sure others in the audience remembered Julia Gillard’s famous speech pointing out Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny, ( his reference to women of Australia doing the ironing!) yet the Australian people chose him as Prime Minister – Rayson spot on with her observation about gender inequality.

Hotel Sorrento offers contemplation and reflection on more than just feminist talking points as well as the strong leading roles for women.

‘Who has power, how do they wield it and who suffers at the hand of it, are questions [that] always interest me,’ Rayson began. ‘So I go to the family to explore them. I understand it in a family context. I can take the audience with me on that and make the links between what we understand in our known worlds with how the tensions might express themselves politically, in a bigger national canvas.’

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

The Writer’s Craft

There is so much to learn from a well-written and performed play, especially one like Hotel Sorrento, which seems to be a perennial favourite.

I’ve written before about the importance of Australian plays and their value.

Writers continually mine their life and experiences and “turn” it into a novel. Memoir and life writing are popular genres. Scripts for stage or screen adapt stories, novels, and real-life events all the time.

Hotel Sorrento poses interesting discussion points and challenges the notion of ‘truth’ in writing a story. Who owns a story if you are including family history or biographical content? What are the writer’s responsibilities? Should authenticity be compromised?

Some writers, like the character Meg, insist they have written fiction because they have changed names or tinkered with “the truth” and like Meg, may be shocked that instead of accolades they are accused of a lack of integrity because they used family memories for personal gain.

Family or friends may be resentful of the use of their history, or they may be interested in delving into the past, some may accept the author’s interpretation or perspective, others may be angry or resentful.

  • How accurate is your memory – is all memoir really creative non-fiction?
  • Do women write differently to men?

Dialogue is crucial to a play and how the story is ‘told,’ as well as the actions of characters. If a writer can master the art of dialogue, short stories and novels will be much more interesting and memorable.

Pacing and building tension important to keep the audience engaged, just as it is important in the written word to keep pages turning.

In most scenes of this play, there are only two characters talking and we gradually not only learn their backstory, the current position but begin to consider different viewpoints and piece together ‘the big picture’. The structure works well.

Character is important to story – a character must be believable, we have to be invested in their welfare or at least care what they do or say. We can love or hate them but they must engage us.

Hotel Sorrento has an interesting cast of characters and as mentioned before it is easy to identify with one of them, especially if you have siblings. The three sisters all come from the same working-class Australian background but their lives have moved in different directions with Pippa and Meg creating a life outside Australia.

The character Dick is a journalist – a different kind of writer to novelist Meg – and his strong patriotic views place him at loggerheads with Meg regarding Australian culture.

Marge, an artist and resident of Sorrento identifies with the character in the novel who represents Hilary and the novel reawakens her passion for Sorrento and her art, giving her confidence to move from ‘watercolours to oils’.

She is an observer and functions like the Greek chorus, providing an outsider’s perspective. It is fitting she explains to Dick how appropriate the novel’s title is considering the subject matter and that melancholy is not depression. She understands and empathises with the author’s sad yearning for the Sorrento of her childhood.

The father of the sisters, Wal and Meg’s English husband, Edwin provide most of the comedy and are almost caricatures of the quintessential larrikin Aussie and refined Englishman but are more nuanced especially with their interaction with the sea (which acts as a character).

A ‘cliff-hanger’ just before the interval comes as a shock and throughout the play, there is intrigue regarding the death of Troy’s father and his relationship with Pippa and Meg as well as Hilary.

The scenes with family members explore their relationship ‘issues’ and these are evenly juxtaposed with scenes exploring cultural identity through the characters of artist Marge and journalist Dick.

The tension palpable when they all come together for lunch in a scene that brings conflicting views to an explosive head.

There is no neat resolution to the drama, which leaves us wanting more and with plenty to discuss after the play ends.

Stagecraft

I thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Sorrento but (sorry there is a but!) the production was let down by a couple of glitches with the lighting that distracted from what was happening on stage.

After the interval, I’m not sure if the lighting was supposed to mimic evening or a sunset glow, but two huge red streaks appeared as a backdrop, at first making a V and then like two spotlights.

Later there was a blue background with a white pattern which may have been designed to represent clouds, seagulls, impending storm – who knows?

Dimming and increasing the lighting to change and highlight various scenes was often mistimed too. It’s to the actors’ credit they carried on magnificently.

When we were discussing these glitches with Lena’s friend we learned of the hazards and difficulties of producing a play when you are continually on the move, arriving at different theatres with limited resources and rehearsal times.

It is a miracle there are no major stuff ups!! Well done the consummate professionalism of dedicated actors who learn to adapt and shine.

Each theatre is different, the lighting console may have been strange to the operator, or faulty – the tight schedule and limited time at each theatre means no long rehearsals.

There are four major scene locations in Hotel Sorrento, which can be contained on one stage and controlled by the lights spotlighting whatever part of the stage is hosting the scene: the kitchen of the family home, the pier, the seashore, and Meg’s living room in England.

At Shirley Burke Theatre the stage was smaller than expected and some of the props wouldn’t fit – instead of a lounge suite for Meg and Edwin’s house – an armchair and a standard lamp had to suffice!

The other props closer than the actors were used to… and because the actors double as stagehands removing or rearranging props, it was an added burden to remember who picks up because of the last minute alterations.

The cast is going to be on the road for 77 performances – they’ve done Frankston, Dandenong et al… one night and one matinee in Parkdale, and then onto Moonee Ponds before heading to country Victoria.

So many community theatres, each one presenting their own challenges, hard work and dedication.

Look up the schedule, whether you are a writer, a lover of theatre or have dreams of writing or acting – if you can catch a performance of this anniversary tour of Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento please do – you won’t regret it!

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A RIOTous Evening of Poetry, Politics And Performance

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The show RIOT finished Friday night, at the Arts Centre Melbourne before heading to New York and certainly fulfilled its promise. There have been many complimentary reviews written already but here’s my tuppence-worth because with luck the performers will return!

RIOT was part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival and a show I may have overlooked if not recommended by daughter Anne who volunteered at the Festival. She is also involved with the Women’s Circus and after seeing RIOT last week generously bought me a ticket,

You’ll love it, Mum!’

Indeed, I did!

Uplifting and Joyous – the Power of Laughter

The evening turned out to be a fantastic tonic after a month that’s been difficult on several fronts. Laughter is great medicine and there are plenty of opportunities for laughter in the hour and forty minutes as you participate in RIOT – and there is side-splitting audience participation!

The Fairfax Theatre compact and intimate and although we sat in the back row as the cast moved on and off stage everyone felt involved. The way the performers used the space, especially considering the physical nature of many of the acts, impressive and at times nail-biting.

I can imagine they breathed a sigh of relief each night there were no mishaps.

 

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The set intriguing as we started to take our seats.

 

The Arts Centre blurb describes the show as –

A disorderly cocktail of party and politics, and a love-letter of hope to the future, RIOT is a thrilling, uplifting and unforgettable night out.

Dance, drag, circus and comedy rolled into a gut-punch of wild theatre, RIOT infuses the excitement of a variety show with the energy of the dance floor, setting your hearts and minds ablaze…

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RIOT doesn’t disappoint on any level.

I left the theatre relaxed and yet energised and grateful for being part of something unforgettable…  Friday night was a great example of how performance theatre can be exhilarating and inspirational as well as pure entertainment.

RIOT sold every ticket available in Dublin Fringe, won Best Production and broke box-office records and no wonder because it combines spoken word poetry with a strong social justice message, goosebump-inducing singing, Riverdance style, tap and cabaret dancing, heart-stopping aerial acrobatics, deep belly-laugh and slapstick comedy – and all at a breathless pace for more than an hour and a half!

There is no interval – the flow never interrupted, the pacing excellent. A strong thought-provoking message seamlessly segued into a routine that lightens the mood.

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Midsumma Festival is an annual celebration of queer, intersex, transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay culture, held during January and February in Melbourne and the all-star Irish cast of RIOT a perfect example of the essence of Midsumma written by self-proclaimed Queen of Ireland, Panti Bliss aka Rory O’Neill, and Emmet Kirwan, actor, playwright and poet.

Panti a drag queen and gay rights activist from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland and one of the many Marriage Equality champions who helped the campaign here to achieve success despite the ridiculous and expensive postal vote conservative politicians forced on Australia.

Panti wrote much of the original text of RIOT with Emmet Kirwan and also wrote her 2017 one-woman show High Heels in Low Places, plus Woman In The Making: Panti’s Memoir.

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. 

George Orwell.

But RIOT isn’t just for minorities or pushing one political barrow. It is a show about being human, about acceptance and tolerance, about social justice, equity and most of all about love and hope for a better world. We can all be the catalysts for change.

The 80s music and song and dance routines with Panti’s patter reminiscent of the intimacy of the club scene.

The spoken word poems powerful and mesmerising like many slam poetry gigs but throw in Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists Lords of Strut – aka Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally with clowning acrobatics, juggling, dancing and patter, add former Gaelic football player Ronan Brady turned aerialist extraordinaire, and you have a carnival of unforgettable talent.

riot cast final number

As a writer, I paid close attention to the spoken word segments, especially Heartbreak about a teenage girl getting pregnant performed by Kate Brennan.

In a few powerful words we learn the choice or lack thereof in Ireland regarding contraception and abortion, the attitudes of family, society,  church and state, the challenges girls face struggling to raise a child alone and the teenage perspective on parenting and the future.

Written by award-winning playwright Emmet Kirwan, the piece has been adapted and brought to a wider audience with a seven-minute short film, and it is worth watching on Youtube.

Here are selections of an interview with Emmet by RTE Entertainment that give some insight into his decision to write Heartbreak for the stage, turn it into a short film and release it to as wide an audience as possible through social media and why you then must let it go – if people are inspired or motivated to consider other people’s perspectives or lives so be it…

It’s one of those things when you do something, you’re not actually 100 percent about anything until it’s viewed by an audience.

I didn’t have any ballpark thing; I was just hoping that people would see it and that basically, the video would be like a delivery system for the poem. That was the primary goal of it, but when you bring in other people like Dave, they turn it into something that’s not just a poem.

… essentially it’s just about giving something to the debate. What happens a lot of time in debates is it’s a lot of didactic statements bouncing off each other and they don’t actually touch a nerve with anybody because these things are just figures on a page or sound bites.

So if you can make something that’s essentially a statistic into a story it has more impact.

If it has an impact, it has.

And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t – it’s not world-ending. As far as I’m concerned it’s done its job in the sense that it’s just out there.

Whatever happens to it now is up to whoever sees it.

There are a lot of surprises in RIOT and when light and sound disappears abruptly the audience are encouraged to bring their mobile phones to the rescue. It doesn’t take you long to realise it is all part of the performance but it is a cleverly woven segment.

Alma Kelliher, the musical brain behind RIOT, influenced by folk, gospel and close vocal harmony. The secretary of the Irish Society of Stage and Screen Designers, her music has been performed throughout Europe, USA, Asia and Australia.

I sat between my two daughters who recognised and loved the 80s songs. The tunes were catchy but I was too busy being a new mum in the 80s so couldn’t sing along like they did but did recognise the fluorescent and gaudy colour schemes of 80s fashion and loved how the stage adaptations glittered, gleamed, shimmied and shook.

A Carnival of Talent

Cabaret, clubs, theatre, circus – RIOT an amazing carnival of entertaining talent: there is an aerial and ground performer with muscle control which must be the envy of the best dancers and circus acts in the world. 

I know my daughter is itching to be as good as Ronan Brady one day.

His feats are jaw-dropping and inspire collective audience breath holding.

Yet this same athletic performer dances and does spoofs on adverts that demean women and pokes fun at stereotypes gay and straight.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald Rory aka Panti explains how the revolutionary show came into being during the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin and how Ronan got involved.

Riot came from a conversation one day when we were talking about Riverdance, what it said about Ireland at the time, and we wondered what would our Riverdance look like?

Emmet is very well known here in Ireland for having a social conscience, so he wrote these incredible sorts of poems, and then I wrote some as well and those things are what pull everything else through…

… former Gaelic football player Ronan Brady …  took to aerial work as a means to limber up following injury, and the practice stuck.

When we found him, Ronan was a great aerialist and all that and he’s very handsome – perfect! – but he had never done anything like this, or with people like us.

So he turns up for the very first day, a photoshoot long before we got into the rehearsal room, and the gayest costume designer in the world hands him a pair of Speedos, and Panti is there.

At the time, he handled it very well but we know now he was just like, ‘What the f—?!’

He had no idea what he had let himself in for. He had never even met a gay person. But he’s firmly okay with it all by now.

Loud and Proud Without Hubris

There is Heartache, but also Harmony, Humour… and most of all Happiness.

2018 needs a RIOT and I wish Panti and crew luck as they continue their world tour. Who knows they may even inspire a Trump tweet!

 

Do More Than Pop In to The Pop-up Globe

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On Saturday, I experienced a delightful day – a magical memory day to treasure.

A belated birthday treat from my daughters, Anne and MaryJane, planned months ago, came to fruition as we enjoyed a matinee performance of Othello, at the Pop-up Globe Theatre, an exciting addition to Melbourne’s thriving arts scene.

This full-scale working replica of Shakespeare’s Second Globe Theatre started to ‘pop up’ in July in the newly christened Shakespeare Gardens adjacent to the Sydney Myer Music Bowl.

A huge thank you to Victoria’s Andrews Government, a great supporter of art and culture for enticing this fantastic enterprise to Melbourne. It is an outstanding success. The season, which started on September 21 to finish November 12, has been extended to January 12, 2018.

This mirrors the success of its New Zealand origins, when it opened in Auckland in 2016 and celebrated attendances of 100,000, including 20,000 school students.

The second season in Auckland garnered 100,000 attendees too and public calls for it to be a permanent feature. Thank goodness they had already committed to coming to Melbourne!

program pop up theatre

 

The Pop-up Globe Theatre Company Making History

If you buy the program, you can read all about the history of the venture, the original Globe and The Second Globe Theatre, the research involved, the director’s interpretation of the four plays performed (Othello, As You Like It, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing), profiles of the actors, and details of the production team, including costuming and choreography.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at Croydon High School, where I was fortunate to be taught by Dr Saffin. How a public high school managed to retain a Doctor of Literature and respected writer is a mystery but under his influence, Shakespeare’s plays not only made sense but inspired me to want to write.

It doesn’t take much imagination for me to be back in the classroom in 1970, mesmerised as Dr Saffin acted out scenes from the plays we were studying at the time: Hamlet and The Tempest. He taught me English Expression as well as English literature so I had a double dose of Shakespeare in the classes with Macbeth studied too.

Dr Saffin had a bad stutter and warned students not to sit in the front desks or they’d get sprayed but miraculously when he was ‘in character’ his stutter disappeared.

He not only nurtured my love of Shakespeare but made me sit an exam run by the Melbourne Shakespeare Society at Melbourne University. I can’t remember the actual exam (blocked out no doubt because I always suffered horrible anxiety and exam nerves) but I do remember the announcement of the results and prize-giving.

Mum, who always had a profound faith in my academic ability insisted that the ‘only reason’ I came second was the judge was biased towards boys.

‘I don’t think so, Mum. What makes you say that?’

‘I just know the way the world works.’

My ever-loyal Mum, sounding like an embittered women’s liberationist yet she never read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch just published that year.

Dr Saffin told me I did well against the mainly private school and elite public school entries but somehow I felt I let both Mum and him down.

However, I loved the prize, a book I’d never have been able to afford and a resource that has proved invaluable over the years for writing and research and my love for Shakespeare has never diminished!

The Play’s The Thing – Shakespeare On Stage A Must

In 1970, I saw Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed at a Melbourne theatre with the cast dressed in black with minimum props and no scenery. We were to concentrate on the words and actions of the actors.

I’ve lost count of the number of versions of Hamlet I’ve seen.  The latest being the broadcast of the National Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. And of course, ‘that Scottish play’, Macbeth I’ve seen performed, and Much Ado About Nothing set in the 1920s.

When John was alive, we honoured our mutual love of Shakespeare by attending the Bell Shakespeare productions, his favourite being Henry V.

Bell Shakespeare set their version in the WW1 trenches where the St. Crispen’s Day Speech certainly kept its relevance.

Bell set Coriolanus in the time of the rise of Mussolini – again an ideal modern day choice to discuss Shakespeare’s recurring themes of war, power, loyalty and leadership.

The girls were very young when first exposed to Shakespeare but have never forgotten the spectacles and understood the storylines, if not the dialogue. I think that’s why they were so keen to experience the Pop-up Globe.

 

I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For Othello

I’ve seen or studied many of Shakespeare’s plays but Saturday was the first I’d seen Othello on stage and loved the amazing, energetic, and entertaining performance by an outstanding cast.

O beware, my Lord, of jealousy. / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.”

Witness Shakespeare’s ultimate psychological thriller in Pop-up Globe’s production of Othello. Take a journey into the diseased mind of the noble Moor as he’s consumed by ‘the green-eyed monster’; jealousy. The twists and turns in this powerful and dark production will have you on the edge of your seat.

An electric current of joy bound the girls and me as we sat enthralled. We laughed, sighed, held our breaths and teetered on the verge of tears to the thrilling performances and interpretation of a storyline showing the terrible consequences of jealousy and the despair malevolent envy fosters.

Director, Ben Naylor has incorporated the background of the original production and subsequent productions in colonial New Zealand to hint at ‘a darker side to the history of this play about otherness in a colonial context. ‘

Naylor explains that Othello was the first play to be written under King James’ patronage so Shakespeare recognised the King’s ‘interests in the manifestations of worldly evil and the operations of the Devil…’

And now: as nationalism and its attendant demons – racism and xenophobia – again insinuate themselves into mainstream political discourse worldwide, and as the choices of individuals and societies continue to be driven by envy and jealousy, the play asks us once more to confront the lies that sound like truth.

Oh, yes!

This is why I love Shakespeare and why he is still studied and always relevant. He writes about the human condition and explores our behaviour and relationships. His plays are timeless and can be transplanted into modern settings, appropriated, and adapted into novels and movies.

… one that loved not wisely but too well

The International Day of the Girl Child celebrated this week brings into focus issues raised by Shakespeare all those centuries ago. The two main female characters: Desdemona and Emilia are powerless against the physical, emotional and financial control their husbands exercise. The women are friends, even although one is the mistress, the other the servant, however, they live by different moral codes.

This production does not shy away from depicting domestic violence or the consequences of drunkenness and other violence. And society’s hypocrisy.

We witness how those in power enable the subjugation of women and the double standards of so many regarding ideas of ‘womanhood’.

 ‘Thou weigh’st thy words before thou givest them breath…’

All of Shakespeare’s plays you read or watch remind you of how much our language and culture owes to this playwright. Some of the words and ideas may not have been his original thought but because of the popularity of his plays the phrases are embedded in our language, adding to the nuances of English.

No wonder many ESL students have difficulty understanding some of our expressions.

I’ve already highlighted some of the quotes from Othello but list some more cultural references. These may have been altered over the centuries but nonetheless, have Shakespearean roots:

jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster,

…Jealousy is a monster that gives birth to itself.

… Heaven is my judge, I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

my heart is turn’d to stone

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

… T’is neither here nor there.

To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.

Men in rage strike those that wish them best.

Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners:

...he that filches from me my good name, Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed…

When devils do the worst sins, they first put on the pretence of goodness and innocence…

To be poor but content is actually to be quite rich. But you can have endless riches and still be as poor as anyone if you are always afraid of losing your riches.” 

Pop-up Globe Better Than Expected

In London recently, I missed going to The Globe – I did but see it passing by – from a ferry on the Thames, so attending the Pop-up Globe a dream come true. In fact, if the attendant manning the merchandise stall is to be believed the Pop-up Globe is more authentic than the one in London. (Read all about it in that valuable program guide I mentioned.)

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The Pop-up Globe is intimate with a variety of seating options and despite my failing hearing, I only missed a few words but none of the meaning or action.

No matter where you sit or stand in the Pop-up Globe theatre you will be no more than 15 metres from the stage. So wherever you choose you’ll be close to the action.

Pop-up Globe is based on staging of the second Globe theatre as much as possible. There are two large structural pillars situated on the stage and because the actors play in 360 degrees, it is likely that no matter where you sit or stand your view may be slightly restricted or you may miss a line or two!

The action on stage moves quickly so no matter where you are situated you might see and hear something completely different from someone on the other side of the stage.

Apparently, A, B, C Reserve tickets are comfortable backed seats. The girls’ budget bought D Reserve tickets, which are a combination of comfortable backed seats and backless wooden benches with cushions.

We had a good view but sat on wooden benches with cushions already showing signs of too many bums on seats, so if you need to sit super comfortably perhaps take your own cushion.

The cheapest tickets are Groundling tickets in a standing only area, where sitting is not permitted for safety reasons. Nor are any bags and these have to be checked into the cloakroom.

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The play goes for two and a half hours with a short interval.

This is around the same length of time that most performances took 400 years ago. We know this because in Romeo and Juliet, the Prologue mentions the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’.

If you decide to be a Groundling you will be close to the action and actors, which may not compensate for having to stand for a long time.

One young man in a blue denim shirt fascinated me as he pressed so close to the stage he could have been welded to it. Immobile, his nose level with the stage floor, he would have heard every intake of breath, felt the vibration of footsteps, and even seen the hairs in the actor’s nose!

However, he moved with lightning speed when Othello stabbed himself and the fake blood spurted skywards and outwards like lava from a volcano. Outside after the play, there were several people with telltale red spots in their hair, on their face and clothes. The price paid for being close to the action.

Groundlings on either side of the path and stairway to the stage experienced a similar spattering and in some cases drenching when Roderigo appeared ‘from the sea’ spluttering and spitting like a whale (a very funny scene).

Roderigo regurgitated the largest amount of water I’ve ever seen anyone hold in their mouth, albeit done with aplomb and excellent timing.

Fortunately, no one in the audience replicated disgruntled tomato throwers from Shakespeare’s time despite Pop-up Globe’s authenticity.

Groundlings are ‘the pits’ for the common folk but there are Royal Rooms on the Pop-up Globe stage. I could see the occupants of these clearly.

Each accommodates up to six guests. Seats can be booked individually, as a romantic room for two or as a private room for a larger group. “All sixteen seats can be booked as a perfect option for entertaining clients or friends.”

Perhaps some corporates will see this as a unique Christmas outing – if they have a large expense account!

Royal Room bookings include a complimentary premium hamper and a
season programme per person. But it’s not cheap to copy Elizabeth or James 1st, the two monarchs most closely associated with Shakespeare. ($304.67 per seat.)

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest psychological thrillers. In a theatre of war, a great general is brought down by the power of his own love and the prejudice of others.

Othello forces us to confront a timeless fear: does the Devil move among us? Racism, jealousy and envy conspire in Shakespeare’s dark tragedy, in this full production inspired by the Jacobean period, performed by a specially-formed international ensemble in spectacular bespoke costumes.

The Pop-up Globe Queen’s Company is Pop-up Globe’s resident mixed company of male and female actors and musicians, working with world experts to bring you the shock of the old: the effect of Shakespeare’s plays performed in the space for which they were written.

 

The stagecraft of this production is magnificent, as are the costumes and the final scenes are awesome. The main character is Othello, but it is Iago, the villain, who if not present in every scene, makes his presence felt.

The themes of love, appearance and reality, jealousy, revenge, prejudice and despair, exposed and explored in the final dramatic scenes.

When Iago’s villainy is revealed and he is ‘strung up’ the whole theatre is shocked. There is a collective holding of breath and I felt the tension from Anne and Mary Jane, and I’m sure all of us prayed the workmanship and health and safety guidelines met expectations.

Iago was carefully pulled up towards a hole in the ceiling, his arms outstretched crucifixion style, not just symbolically, but to ensure the hoist went smoothly. Smoke allowed a mystic disappearance into ‘the heavens’ and when he was ‘resurrected’ in the final scene he was helped out of a trapdoor in the floor as if brought back from ‘hell’!

The wonderfully choreographed dance of all the cast at the end a triumphant celebratory ‘haka -like’ tribute. Regan Taylor is a great Othello incorporating his experience of innovative Maori theatre, Te Ao Maori in his performance.

The actors used all of the space and opportunities to engage the audience – even acknowledging those ‘in the gods’, the privileged Royal Boxes, as well as the groundlings.

scene 5

Shakespeare must be seen and heard to be appreciated. A play on stage, more than the screen, relies on dialogue and how the actors use the stage, props, their bodies and voices.

In Saturday’s performance, there were no weak links and even the ignominious cast members with titles ‘officer’ and ‘soldier’ contributed unforgettable performances as they immersed themselves in the roles.

The range of experience and talent of the actors helps make this production such a success and I can honestly say it’s the best Shakespearean experience I’ve had.

The season has been extended so perhaps if I hint loud enough I might manage a ticket to another play in this marvellous company’s repertoire.  Afterall, Christmas is on the horizon!

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A walk through the Queen Victoria Gardens, lunch at the National Gallery.

Then a fun and successful attempt to negotiate the maze at the House of Mirrors added to my birthday treat.  I would probably still be wandering but the girls got us out in 10 minutes.

On the way home to Anne’s flat for a cuppa and to pick up MaryJane’s car, we walked through the Alma Park.

As we delighted in spring buds, blooming flowers, lush greenery and numerous friendly dogs being walked by their owners, we reflected on the tragedy of gentle, spiritual Desdemona and anguished Othello.

We were glad of the durability of Shakespeare, but more importantly our strong loving bond.

What a perfect day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personal and Political – the Power of a Playwright

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The Channel in the corner of the Arts Centre

 

This time last week, I attended The Script Club at The Channel, a studio in the Victorian Arts Centre. We discussed Barungin, Smell The Wind, a play, written in 1988, by West Australian playwright, actor, and poet, Jack Davis, a proud Nyoongarah man.

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This is the blurb from the 1989 Currency Press edition.

The traditional Aboriginal survival skills and the symbolic meaning, ‘to have a direction’ are embodied in the title of this final play in the trilogy which includes The Dreamers (1983) and No Sugar (1985). Jack Davis carries the history of his people into the 1980s as the Wallitch family confront land rights disputes, alcohol abuse and finally an innocent death in police custody.

Barungin, with its humour and close family loyalties, is the strongest statement yet from our foremost black playwright; and a powerful culmination of his dramatic history of Aboriginal life from the arrival of the white man two hundred years ago.

Barungin is a play in two acts, set in Perth, Western Australia during 1988 – the year remembered for the bi-centenary celebrations of the establishment of a settlement at Botany Bay and the start of Australia’s colonial history.

CHARACTERS

All of the characters, except one, are Aboriginal:

Granny Doll, her daughter Meena, Arnie, Meena’s husband, Peter Meena’s brother, Micky, Meena’s 14-year-old son, Little Doll, Meena’s 12-year-old daughter, Robert, Meena and Peter’s cousin, Peegun, a family friend (and Meena’s lover), Shane another cousin.

At the start of the play Arnie and Peter are in jail.

The non-Aboriginal is an evangelical preacher delivering a funeral sermon at the  beginning, which can be done as a voiceover. 

WHY BARUNGIN?

The facilitator of the discussion, John McCallum, chose several Australian plays considered classics. The Script Club discusses, deconstructs, and debates the merits of the plays and whether they could be meaningfully performed today.

  • We look at the form, the representation of the characters, the politics.
  • How or if it could be presented to keep the original essence and meaning intact.
  • What, if any, changes should or could be made to make the play relevant to modern audiences, especially considering the advancements in technology. 
  • Can technology be used to enrich the experience of the audience?

The play was not classified as an ‘Aboriginal form’ or even ‘Black theatre’ as we know it today, but domestic realism. (Aboriginal theatre is one of Australia’s most successful cultural exports, but it wasn’t always.)

At the time of first performance, the playwright, Jack Davis, drew criticism because of the portrayal of domestic violence, drunkenness, law-breaking and acceptance of infidelity as the Wallitch family struggle on the fringe of white society, dispossessed of their land and dislocated from mainstream society.

Some within the black community saw this frank representation of characters caught between two cultures as a betrayal, or unhelpful at a time of fighting for land rights and equity. Negative images adding to the ammunition of detractors and racists.

This is not a new argument. Historically, in the radical left movement, women were expected to wait until workers (who were predominantly male) achieved their rights and then ‘the women question’ would be solved. Within the Women’s Liberation Movement lesbians found themselves excluded from some discussions.  Voices for change always struggle to find common ground.

Jack Davis spawned a whole wave of black playwrights who like himself wanted a dialogue with the dominant white culture. Reconciliation, not revolution, although his honest portrayal of the problems ruffled feathers, he didn’t pull any punches in Barungin. The massacres and devastation wreaked by Europeans when they invaded and colonised Western Australia, as well as the rest of the continent, are listed with devastating effect.

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John always asks The Script Club their initial thoughts and reactions to a play, reminding us to read it twice before judgement.

My initial reaction was overwhelming sadness and simmering anger. Not just because of the shameful past but because many of the issues in this play written 28 years ago are still unresolved.

If anything, with the rise of voices supporting far-right, xenophobic political parties like One Nation and Reclaim Australia, I despair we will ever get it right!

The most important theme of Barungin is black deaths in custody, or at the hands of the police, who are supposed to protect and serve. In the 1980s, these tragedies were highlighted by the death of John Pat, which affected Jack Davis intensely.   It shocked many people.

Unfortunately, despite a Royal Commission, the number of black deaths in custody have increased. A shameful state of affairs – and now we have the Royal Commission into Youth Justice in the Northern Territory because of media exposure and public outcry.

How little has changed! Can anyone in authority really say they didn’t know this was happening?

There have been 53 separate reports in the NT alone on disadvantage, welfare, and treatment of Aboriginal Australians. Do we need any more?

So, a resounding, yes – Barungin needs to be revisited and performed.

THE DISCUSSION

There were ten of us discussing the play: John facilitating, Joshua from the Arts Centre who organised the club, and eight women – all white – that in itself is perhaps telling. Although even with the respectful and amenable confines of our gathering, if I were Aboriginal I could not read this play as a dispassionate discussion about history, meaning, or stagecraft. It is a narrative too many Indigenous people are living – and the story of too many dying.

Joelle, who recently migrated from America said the play resonated strongly with her in the context of the Black Lives Matter campaign in the USA.

 We have had echoes of the movement here too.

When the list of those who have died in custody are read out in the final act of the play it reads like a list of state-sanctioned executions – not by the scaffold or firing squad but consequences of inherent injustice and racism, neglect, humiliation, and brutal acts of genocide. (1883:  180 Aboriginal prisoners died on Rottnest Island from disease, many more hung – not one buried in a marked grave.)

Sandy, originally from  New Zealand, commented on the lack of knowledge or learning of Aboriginal languages and culture in Australia.  Maori language and culture respected and integrated into many facets of New Zealand society and institutions.

Why hasn’t Australia embraced Indigenous languages, taught a deeper understanding of culture and black history? Often the acknowledgement of traditional owners is perfunctory. Why such resistance to change Australia Day to a less offensive date

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Iris Lovatt-Gardiner

 

BLACK THEATRE

Up until the 1970s, there was no specific black theatre. The cultural shows or stories performed were organised or appropriated by whites.

In 1972, the National Black Theatre emerged from Regent Street, Redfern, NSW, with an explosion of plays, dance, activist poetry, biting satire and street theatre. It gave a new voice to the struggles of the 1970s and the Redfern Aboriginal community.

During its 5 years of operation landmark playwrights such as Kevin Gilbert, Robert Merritt and Jack Davis worked at the theatre, as well as actors such as Bob Maza, Lillian Crombie and Justine Saunders, cultural activist Gary Foley and director Brian Syron

Creative Spirits

Critics may suggest there is a loss of authenticity in Barungin because as John, paraphrased Audre Lorde , the African-American feminist, poet, and essayist…

‘You can’t tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools.’

The two-act structure of Barungin an appropriation of ‘White’ form as were the many accepted playwriting tools and rules Davis used to craft his story. However, his story arcs, use of props, dialogue, and character development work well and are effective, also his integration of Aboriginal dance, music and “lingo.” He stamped his aboriginality on the script in many ways.

Scenes jump off the page and his use of humour dealing with such dark subject matter eases the tension for the audience. We believe these are real people, especially the tight family unit and the relationship of Granny Doll and Little Doll – the passing on of knowledge, the acceptance of new ways. 

“… survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114. 2007. Print.

Reading Audre Lorde’s quote in context, Barungin and the large body of work Jack Davis produced is all about encouraging an understanding of Aboriginal identity and belonging. Advocating a society based on mutual respect. 

He did bring about genuine change for his people.

Davis made a major contribution to intercultural relations in Australia, a contribution that was acknowledged through a range of awards: the British Empire Medal for Services to Literature and the Aboriginal people of WA, 1977; Member of the Order of Australia, 1985; WA Citizen of the Year, 1985; the Australia Medal 1986; Human Rights Award, 1987; BHP Award 1988. His literary awards include the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award, and Hon. D.Litt. from Murdoch and in 1986 No Sugar was co-winner of the Australian Writers Guild Award for the best stage play of the year.

The Academy, ACU library

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Aboriginal Australia is the oldest continuous culture in the world, the latest estimate 60,000 + years. The idea of a single ‘Aboriginal nation’ a construct because when the country was colonised there were at least 250 languages spoken with 600 dialects.

Jack Davis emphasises how important language is to identity and culture, his characters speak Nyoongarah as well as English.  A glossary of Aboriginal terms – over 40 words – listed at the end of the play.

The use of Nyoongarah is a powerful statement. When the words are used, the audience is able to work out the meaning or the essence of what is said. It could have an exclusionary effect, particularly since the target audience would be non-Aboriginal, but I doubt it.

The theatre-going public, attend dramatic plays with the expectation of being confronted as well as entertained. Reminding them of the sovereignty of the Nyoongarah, including their language, imperative to the authenticity of the play.

Barungin holds a mirror to a white audience (we have many of the same issues with alcohol, domestic violence, stealing)  and challenges us to rethink our assumptions.  What do we ‘know’ of Australia’s history and the Indigenous  people.

Barungin is a play that will change what and how you feel.

DOES THE PLAY WORK?

We explored whether Barungin was a bridge or a failure toward confronting audiences with Aboriginal reality and the important social and cultural issues needing to be addressed:

  • deaths in custody
  • land rights and cultural dislocation
  • acceptance of Aboriginal sovereignty
  • acknowledgement of Aboriginal disadvantage
  • cohesion and importance of family ties

Lisa mentioned Aboriginal songlines (maps of the land) associated with landmarks and trade routes. Aboriginals explored this continent and marked out territories long before colonial explorers “discovered” mountains, rivers, and valleys!

It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.

Simone de Beauvoir

Racism is real in Australia. It was evident in 1988 and still is in 2016. 

We must reach down deep within our being and acknowledge any fear or loathing of “the other.” The justifications and excuses we make for the treatment of those who are different. Statements such as ‘it’s the past’ ‘I didn’t know’ ‘it wasn’t me’… are not good enough responses to stolen land, stolen children, stolen health, stolen life expectancy.

The personal and the political influence our choices and we find our voice to make change happen.

You cannot use someone else’s fire. You can only use your own. And in order to do that, you must first be willing to believe that you have it.

Audre Lorde

Jack Davis certainly had fire, talent, integrity and heart and a strong belief in the merits of his culture and people’s contribution to country – Nyoongarah and beyond.

I’d like to believe the Treaty denied Aboriginal people (as well as Constitutional recognition) will happen in my lifetime and a national understanding of what was lost with invasion and colonisation will be acknowledged and true reconciliation will occur with the equity and respect still denied.

Plays matter and the power of a playwright such as Jack Davis shouldn’t be underestimated. Barungin still has a contribution to make towards understanding the historical and current pain of Indigenous dispossession. It reveals and at the same time shakes stereotypes.

Joshua’s comment on the last scene has stuck with me.

News of Peter’s death in custody is announced and the play ends with Meena reading a long list of names while the others lay wreaths…

Joshua asks did Davis write the play backward? That is did he write it as backstory to Peter’s death?

Are there one hundred plus other plays to be written?

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