65: The Marginal Farm

25 May

Alex Buzo‘s The Marginal Farm was first produced in 1983. It’s a play set in the last days of colonial rule in Fiji and references the tensions between the Indian and Fijian communities and the paternalistic governance of the Australian and British field officers. But, more than this, it’s a play about growing up and growing old, about aspirations and disappointments.

This quiet and gentle play constantly surprises, never delivering the resolutions you might expect.

Katherine with play

Toby is an Australian woman who’s arrived in Fiji to act as governess to two 17 year olds who’ve failed their last exams. She brings shy, quiet Philip out of his shell and helps Ellen to look forward to the future instead of fighting it. Toby is pursued by several of the men in the area but falls for an Indian man in what was considered then a terrible transgression. For much of the play she is a heroic, if somewhat ditzy, protagonist.

TOBY: Well I’ll tell you what I won’t do and that’s take over that dress shop in Lautoka. I thought briefly about it, but the chances were fairly strong I’d end up as a fairly scatty dress shop lady, the sort of dress shop lady you see with a violet shawl and nicotine stains.

JAMES: And big earrings.

TOBY: Cocker spaniel earrings. The sort of dress shop lady who chatters along, fairly inanely, you’d have to say, and that’s being kind, about who’s in town and doing what to whom. I would not like to end me days like such a lady, a crone before her time.

For all her prescience, this is exactly what Toby becomes. Her headstrong nature and impulsiveness lead her straight to the fate she abhorred at the start of the play. In the last scene, which takes place years after the rest of the play, Ellen comes back to Fiji to visit Toby.

ELLEN: I’m so excited. I can’t wait to see her. She was my heroine, looking back on it. She had such guts, and what heart. And style, too.

But when Toby arrives, she’s scatty, chatting inanely about nothing in particular, and oblivious to her young charge’s distress.

TOBY: Sometimes we sit out here and drink a bit of kava and we talk about things, sometimes even about you and Philip, and we watch the sun set, and I’d have to admit it’s as good a way of spending the middle of the week as any I know. Of course, being a dress shop lady, I’m too busy to do it more often, but it’s nice to know that it’s there. What’s the matter with you?

[ELLEN is crying.]

ELLEN: Oh, Toby! Oh no!

Publisher: Currency Press (published alongside Big River)

Cast: 4M, 3F

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