26: Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset

16 Apr

Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset is a rich and exciting play. I saw the 2006 Queensland Theatre Company production and loved it, but reading it adds a whole other layer to the experience I had in the audience.

Stephen Carleton has written a play which tackles issues like Australia’s northern/southern divide, racism, our colonial past, identity and the ideal of a multicultural utopia. There are big themes in Constance but it’s never didactic. Instead, the play is a gloriously Gothic romp with elements of melodrama and a wicked wit behind the storytelling. It was a well-deserved winner of the 2004 Patrick White Award.

woman holding play

The Story: Lady Constance Drinkwater is holding what’s left of her family together after her husband has been speared and five of her seven daughters have died. The year is 1899 and Constance lives in Far North Queensland and dreams of turning Somerset into the “hybrid capital of a renegade Northern State”.

CONSTANCE: There is an over-riding absurdity in being administered from a capital located so closely to New South Wales. We live in a colony 1300 miles long. Would it be desirable that a man’s body become subordinate to his big toe?

The play begins with a tempest and a shipwreck. Father Angelico (the least angelic priest imaginable!) brings two survivors to the Government’s Residence (Constance’s home) to shelter from the storm. They are Professor Crabbe: a man trying to prove his thesis that whites are adapting to life in the tropics, and Hop Lee: a Chinese business man and poet.

There are ghosts, strange occurrences and bizarre behaviour (most of which is explained by the end), all witnessed by Constance’s surviving twin daughters, Hope and Fortitude. The girls are otherworldly, beset by spirits, precocious and damaged.

Carleton has captured the suspense and heightened drama of the Queensland Gothic beautifully. His language is perfectly pitched for the century and the melodramatic form.

CONSTANCE: It takes such constant … vigilance to maintain strength and optimism under these circumstances. Most days I am fine – we all are – and then suddenly one feels like buckling entirely beneath the weight of it all. […] There is such an unrelenting discipline required for life here. The isolation and boredom are one thing. One is prepared for that. It is our life. I accept that part of it. But this? Five daughters. Five daughters lost to fever. A husband murdered, and a settlement –

Publisher: Playlab Press

Cast: 3M, 3F

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