36: The History of Water

26 Apr

The full title of Noelle Janaczewska’s play is The History of Water/Huyen Thoai mot Giong Nuoc (apologies for not knowing how to get the correct Vietnamese symbols for the letters).

Reflection in mirror

The play is an interesting meditation on memories, language, belonging, translation and truth. It’s written in language that is rich with symbols and poetry and is unconcerned with linear narratives or plot. The play is text heavy but written with constant references to the design elements, which include slides, film and water. Noelle Janaczewska is the play’s author and was also the director and designer for the premiere production.

I loved the immediacy of the descriptions and evocations of places.

KATE: I know this city I grew up in. The pavements warped and split open by the hot, dry summers, the front yards full of cars washed and polished every weekend and the thwack of flyscreen doors as children run in and out.

Kate and Ha are two women talking to themselves, to each other and, sometimes, directly to the audience. We never find out how they know each other or what their relationship is. What we know is that Kate grew up in Perth and is a photographer who has travelled to Asia and spent time in Vietnam, trying to know herself better. Ha was born in Vietnam and came to Australia as a young woman. She now works as a translator.

HA: When I began to learn English in Australia, I’m swamped by a fierce sense of loss. Language seems to have drained out of me, like water through sand, and I’ve only the memory of it left. And I begin to panic. Afraid I’ve lost forever the river-banks of my childhood world.

Most of the time they talk in English, but sometimes they talk in Vietnamese. Sometimes we are given a translation, but often we aren’t. We are left feeling the rift between languages that the characters feel.

HA: I live in two languages; like two negatives printed into the one photograph. One image the Vietnamese landscapes of my childhood; the other the English translations of my adult world.

Beneath the thread of their discourse about memory, language and identity, there is another story: of a man who has gone missing. His suitcase of neatly folded clothes all that’s left of him. Both women seem to have known him. He appears to be the link between them, but we never find out who he is, what happened to him or what their relationships were with him. The closest we get is this enigmatic exchange:

HA: Did you know about me, Kate?

KATE: I sensed you there. Nameless in the shadows. And I wanted to ask him, but somehow, the time was never right. And after a while, I realised that there were some things between us better left unsaid.

I like that this play asks more questions than it answers and that it paints pictures with words, evoking places, memories and times. I imagine it would make a beautiful radio play.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 2F

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