209: Food

16 May

Steve Rodgers’ Food is a delightful drama that incorporates singing, cooking onstage and feeding the audience in its directions. Rodgers suggests that the play be informed by a physical aesthetic and when I saw it performed this had certainly been taken to heart.

2 women in kitchen

Production photo of Food. Starring Kate Box and Emma Jackson.

Food centres on the relationship between two sisters who have been apart for a number of years and have now come together after the death of their mother. Elma stayed at home and worked in the family take away. She has been the dutiful, good daughter and she resents it deeply. Nancy was always the wayward child and she left after sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend.

Elma’s tough and hard as nails on the outside, but that’s because she was always the girl no one wanted. She describes a truth and dare session as children where Nancy was coveted and groped as part of the dare and where, when it came to Elma’s turn, all the boys made excuses to avoid kissing her until she burst into tears and had to run away humiliated.

ELMA: I don’t shower, throw things, break things, try to get drunk. What I do? … I come into the shop, the kitchen sit myself down, and make a sandwich … Bacon, fried egg, cheese, tomato, mayo, white bread, heaps of butter … And I eat.

Nancy is damaged – one of the most harrowing scenes in the play is where we learn of her being gang raped as a teenager – and now she uses her sexuality to barter for position and power.

Rodgers has captured the rivalry, tenderness and jealousy that is so often a part of a relationship between sisters beautifully.

For Nancy and Elma, it comes to a head when they have to hire a kitchen hand and end up employing Hakan – a charming Turkish man.

ELMA: There’s one thing worse than a bullshit artist […] That’s a bullshit artist can’t keep his hands to himself … You mind your manners, and don’t fuck us around. Understand? … Or I’ll cut it clean off, and sew a button on.

[…]

HAKAN: Hassikter … This Elma is one tough lady … Imagine, a button sewn on between your legs? … A very disturbing image, yes? … But I understand why Elma is thinking this way … I am a man. I feel these things, think these things. Love admiring the women all the day.

One of the things I like most about Food is that Rodgers avoids the obvious path. He doesn’t give us the ending we expect (and perhaps long for), but gives us one that is much more satisfying and honest.

Publisher: Playlab – published in Downstairs at Belvoir, alongside Medea and Old Man.
Characters: 2F, 1 M

208: Medea

15 May

Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’ reimagining of Medea is completely different to any other version of the classic Greek text you’re likely to read. It’s written from the perspective of Medea’s children, shut in their bedroom while their parents go through their final bitter confrontation.

Medea detail of painting

Detail from Anselm Feuerbach’s Medea

Leon and Jasper are young boys in a contemporary setting. They have iPods and glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the walls. They mention Facebook and sing Beatles’ songs but they also tell the story of their parents’ meeting, which involves Argonauts and a golden fleece, so there’s a blend of ‘now’ and ‘long ago’.

The two boys have been locked in their room and they do what most siblings would in the circumstances: they bicker, fight, play, joke and torment each other. It’s all very normal and also unbearably sad because, of course, we all know what happens to Medea’s children.

After Medea enters and asks them to make a card for their “Dad’s friend” (the inverted commas are part of the way they refer to Glauce) and tells them they’re going to be moving to her mansion, the boys are beside themselves with excitement. It’s not that they like “Dad’s friend” – but the thought of living in a mansion is pretty amazing, and maybe they could do away with the “friend” in the process.

JASPER: Maybe we should kill her. Like … eat heaps of beans and then sneak into her bedroom and fart in a pillowcase and then put it over her head and watch her suffocate on our fart gas. 

LEON: I don’t think that would work.

JASPER: I reckon if I ate enough beans it would.

LEON: You don’t even like beans.

JASPER: It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Mulvany and Sarks wrote the play after an intensive two-week workshop with two young boys and the dialogue has the authentic feel of children’s play and conversation.

They’ve also managed to make Medea appear a loving mother – never an easy task given her crimes. The end of the play as she cuddles and talks to her two boys is deeply moving.

Publisher: Playlab – published in Downstairs at Belvoir, alongside Food and Old Man.
Characters: 2 M (children), 1 F

207: Head Full of Love

2 Apr

Alana Valentine’s Head Full of Love is a charming bit of storytelling – filled with humour and sensitivity as it tackles the serious issues of renal failure in indigenous Australians and mental problems in … well, all of us.

Head Full of Love

Colette Mann and Roxanne MacDonald in QTC’s production

The play features two characters: one Aboriginal and one Caucasian. They are both older women and it’s delightful to read a play intended for mature actors. Nessa is an older white woman who is running away from something. She’s landed up in Alice Springs with almost no money and an invisible person sitting on her shoulder.

Tilly is an Aboriginal woman from the Pitjantjatjara. She is busily crocheting beanies for the Alice Springs annual beanie festival and is finding it difficult to finish her entry for the competition because of her ongoing dialysis treatment. Renal failure is a real problem for Indigenous Australians – they are more than nine times more likely to be affected by End Stage Renal Disease than non-Indigenous Australians. For Tilly, it means that she has to spend four hours on dialysis three times a week.

Nessa strikes up a conversation with Tilly when she asks Tilly to show her how to crochet. Soon Tilly has persuaded Nessa to give her a ride to the clinic for her dialysis and the two overcome their initial awkwardness with each other and gradually become friends.

While Tilly’s dialogue comes across as very broken on the page, Valentine is explicit in her writer’s notes that this is because she is speaking in a second or third language and that her words should be performed with “variation, nuance and dynamism” – rather than stumbled through.

Head Full of Love has plenty of pathos, but one scene I particularly enjoyed reading was the scene where Nessa describes getting lost in the bush. It’s a soliloquy delivered to the audience and is particularly effective.

NESSA                  And if your skin is crawling because the poverty is so epidemic and the hardship is so obvious and there is so much filth and filth and dirt … then just accept it.

Or get in your car and drive away not because you can’t handle it, no, just because, because you still have that choice.

Published by Playlab 2014
Characters – 2 F

206: Riflemind

4 May

Andrew Upton’s Riflemind is surprisingly only the second play from this prolific writer – but that’s because most of the others have been adaptations of classics or screenplays.

Riflemind

Riflemind was written in 2007 and produced by Sydney Theatre Company in the same year and is a grungy, often funny look at an ageing rock band getting together after 20 years to prepare for a comeback tour.

The play takes place over a week in the palatial country home of John, Riflemind’s frontman. The other band members arrive by helicopter and the tension from the start is communicated in broken stretches of dialogue where the characters interrupt, trail off and step carefully around John’s temper and ego. There’s also the decades of drugs, booze and fame that have taken a toll on the thinking and clarity of all the characters.

JOHN: And everyone was grasping and snatching and calling my name. It was like a fucking battlefield – a blizzard of flash bulbs crashing like hail into my head, sticking drugs in every hole. 

It was the only quiet time I got to myself was shooting up.

One of the most touching scenes is when Lynn, John’s wife, has gone on a bender after years of their shared sobriety and he finds her sitting in the vegetable drawer of the fridge with her pants down around her ankles. It’s awful and should be humiliating, but John’s tenderness and acceptance of his wife’s frailty make it strangely poignant.

And then there’s the maudlin fact of their comeback tour, that they may all be past it now, that it might all be too late.

SAM: Life? It’s just lots and lots of little things, Phil. People throw the odd punch, till their grave sure, if they’re lucky. Dying breath, even, maybe. But the real defeat builds up slowly. Very slowly.

There are surprise denouements at the end of the play that make sense of the tension and rivalry that’s been evident from the start but they come too late for empathy with the volatile and selfish characters that make up Riflemind. Which I think may be Upton’s point: that no matter how far we run, we can’t escape the past.

Publisher: Currency Press

Characters: 5m, 2f

205: The Shoe-Horn Sonata

4 Jun

John Misto’s award-winning play The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a moving tribute to the Australian nurses held prisoner by the Japanese in the Second World War. In 1942, 65 Australian Army nurses were among the hundreds of thousands of women and children taken prisoner in Singapore. Most of them died over the next three years, but a few survived the horrendous POW camps and this is their story.

play and woman

Misto did extensive research and vowed to tell the hidden story, the one that governments preferred to forget. Unlike the fallen soldiers from wars, there were no memorials to the nurses or the civilians who were captured and murdered during the Second World War. Misto donated his prize money to their cause and in 1999 at long last a memorial was unveiled.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a play for two older women. It’s a memory play and a play about friendship and broken trust. Bridie was an Army Nurse captured by the Japanese. Sheila was a young girl sent out of Singapore by her parents on a boat that was torpedoed in the harbour.

The two characters are Misto’s invention, but you can sense that many parts of the story they tell are similar to what he heard from many of the women he interviewed. In his author’s notes he writes: “Although the characters of Bridie and Sheila are fictional, every incident they describe is true and occurred between 1942 and 1995.”

To stop the play becoming maudlin with reminiscing, Misto gives his two protagonists a burning problem for the present. After rescuing each other time and again and being closer than many of us ever get to be, Bridie and Sheila have not seen each other since the end of the war. During the course of The Shoe-Horn Sonata we gradually find out why.

And the play’s title? The women formed a choir and used Bridie’s shoe-horn as a metronome.

SHEILA: We forgot the Japs – we forgot our hunger – our boils – barbed-wire – everything … Together we made this glorious sound that rose above the camp – above the jungle – above the war – rose and rose and took us with it. Fifty voices set us free.

BRIDIE: Fifty voices and a shoe-horn …

Publisher: Currency Press (1996)

Cast: 2F (and 1M voice over)

For more information on the women prisoners of war, read this article by Hank Nelson in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial.

204: Sled

4 May

In the last week I’ve read two plays by Judith Thompson, back to back. My only problem is that I haven’t had time to write about them. (Blame it all on a very exciting trip to Poland and a paper that has to be written for a conference there.)

Cover of Sled by Judith Thompson

Both plays were dark, brutal, strange, disconcerting and beautiful. The one I’m talking about here is Sled.

Sled is set in the Canadian wilds and in suburban Toronto. It’s a play about relationships, regrets and inexplicable violence. The play blends naturalistic dialogue with poetic monologues, each time it feels as if it might be heading into realism and you might be able to relax, there’s a heightened moment that is fantastical and challenging and forces the reader/audience to work hard to make connections.

Annie is a singer on holidays with her husband in Northern Ontario. She sees an owl outside their cabin in the middle of the night and decides to go for a walk in the snow. Two thugs out hunting on snowmobiles see her (or don’t see her) and pretend/believe that she’s a moose. They shoot her and leave her in the snow.

Two scenes later, Annie has a monologue.

ANNIE: This is very strange. This is very strange. My heart is not beating, the blood is pouring, gushing out of me […] I am dying. I will be buried. Deep, unmoving inside a box under the ground, eyes never moving my tongue curling up mouldy inside my mouth these hands folded, living only in dreams, and thoughts, and hurried conversations in front of Steven’s Milk, with dogs pulling at the leash and kids dancing around, “Did you hear who died?” or at the skating rink, flirting, buying hot dogs, “Did you hear?” less and less, and less, present only in my recycled clothes, hanging at the Goodwill, in the hairs I have left in the brushes all over the house, in my fingerprints which will fade in ten years, she disappeared; they the neighbours they will go on and on for years […] and I will have left so little; I wish to leave more on this earth, more than I have (big raspy breath) oh let me go back, to lie naked in the wet cement, to spray paint my name in blue all over my city […]

It’s a long monologue – too long for me to include here – and it is startlingly lovely and terribly, terribly sad.

Sled needs to be read more than once – it can’t be glanced over and summarised. It’s a meaty, confronting piece of work with images and themes that disturb and haunt.

Publisher: Playwrights Canada Press

Cast: 4M, 3F (contains some doubling)

203: Doc

14 Apr

Another play by Sharon Pollock today: Doc. This is one of the Canadian playwright’s most acclaimed plays, having garnered her the Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Governor General’s Award for Drama.

cover of Sharon Pollock's Doc

Doc is an autobiographical play about Pollock’s family. Her father, Ev, was a workaholic physician and her mother, nicknamed Bob, suffered depression and alcoholism, eventually committing suicide when Pollock was 18. The play is unflinching and raw, particularly in the way it depicts Pollock herself with all her flaws writ large.

Doc can be compared to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night, because of its autobiographical nature and the examination of a deeply dysfunctional family. But Doc is a more nuanced and hard-hitting piece of drama, in my opinion.

In an interview with Richard Ouzounian for The Toronto Star, Pollock said that: “Sometimes you don’t know what it is you’re writing. Your brain is playing a trick on you. If I knew I was going to delve so deeply into my past life I never would have done it.”

Reading Doc, I could understand why Pollock would have steered clear had she known what she was getting into. Not only is the play autobiographical, she also used real names, with the exception of her own. Apparently, in rehearsals, the director suggested that she change the name of the characters based on her to give herself a little distance. And, yes, there are two characters based on Pollock. Katie, Pollock as a young girl, and Catherine, Pollock in her 30s. Katie gets to experience things as they are happening to her and Catherine offers some perspective, looking back with the vantage of years and distance from her family.

The play is beautifully shaped and very moving. Interestingly, the character most will empathise with is Bob, the alcoholic mother, the one character Pollock had no empathy for while she was growing up. In her interview with Ouzounian she said: “I didn’t like my mother very much when [I] was growing up. I hated her in fact. I used to say, ‘My God, you’re trying to kill yourself again? Couldn’t you even do that right?’”

What makes this play so interesting is the blurring and shifting nature of time and the two versions of the author. One witnessing and reaching out to the past, while the other is oblivious and has to live through all the hurt, blind to the advice being offered.

Publisher: Playwrights Union of Canada (1984)

Cast: 2M, 3F