Archive | July, 2011

132: The Bloody Chamber

31 Jul

I love Angela Carter’s version of the Bluebeard story. Her tale The Bloody Chamber put a whole new spin on the virginal maiden brought to the magnificent castle and given a heavy bunch of keys with the tempting caveat: “All is yours, everywhere is open to you – except the lock that the single key fits. You must promise, if you love me, to leave it well alone.”


Carter’s writing is decadent and delicious, full of wicked twists and turns and glorious description. Bryony Lavery seems the perfect playwright to adapt her stories for the stage and she’s done a beautifully true job with The Bloody Chamber. Most of the words are Carter’s. The story follows hers faithfully, with just a few flourishes for the stage: like the beginning which sees the characters anticipating the ending; the gorgeous scene where the mother teaches her daughter to tango; and the embodiment and voicing of the three dead wives who whisper the gory details of their deaths.

In both Carter’s story and Lavery’s play, a wealthy Marquis woos a young girl who is poor and innocent but has amazing “potential for corruption”. She plays piano beautifully and he gives her many lavish gifts, tying her and her family to him with his largesse. The most opulent is a choker of large rubies.

MARQUIS: After the Terror
The Aristocrats who had escaped the guillotine
Liked to tie a red ribbon round their necks
At just the point where the blade would have sliced it
through …

My grandmother
Taken with the notion
Had her ribbon made up in rubies
As a gesture of luxurious defiance!

[To the girl’s mother] How lovely she will look     your daughter
The white dress
The frail child within it
And these round her throat
Bright as arterial blood

In his castle that stands “where the sky meets the sea”, the girl’s innocence is replaced with sensuality, lust and curiosity. Her bridegroom disgusts her but he also captivates her. She walks willingly towards her doom, saved at the last moment by her wild, windswept mother who breaches the castle’s defences to save her daughter.

GIRL: You never saw such a wild thing as my mother
Her hat

MOTHER: Seized by the wind and blown out to sea …

GIRL: Her hair a wild mane
Her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh

MOTHER: Skirts tucked round the waist
One hand on the reins
The other

GIRL: Clasping my father’s service revolver

MOTHER: Just in case

Publisher: Oberon Books

Cast: 4F, 2M (contains some doubling)

Read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.


131: The Chapel Perilous

30 Jul

The Chapel Perilous is Dorothy Hewett’s autobiographically charged play about self acceptance, sexuality, morality and politics. Sally Banner is Hewett’s alter ego and she’s a wilful, smart heroine, who is unable to conform to small town norms of the time.

Chapel Perilous

The play spans decades, ending in the late 1960s with Sally standing trial for her unorthodox nature and her many crimes of passion. It begins with Sally at school, in love with Judith: “a flat-chested, boyish-looking girl”.

SALLY: I’m saying, coward, that I love you. I’m saying, coward, that I ache for you to be a man. I’m saying, coward, that that queer, affected voice of yours drives me mad, so that I could punch your mouth and kiss you ’til the blood comes. I’m saying, coward, that I hate your smug invention of a mind that finds pleasure in illicit loving as long as it’s not mentioned outright.

Sally refuses to bow to the altar at the school chapel, she refuses to bow to community expectations, the only voice she’ll listen to it is the voice pounding in her body, through her blood. When the teachers force Judith to drop Sally, Sally consoles herself with men.

SALLY: Who wants to love a mind? Minds are too difficult. Nobody can love a mind. But bodies are simple and clean and straight. I know what to do with a body.

She keeps coming back to the same man, Michael. A man with a sullen mouth, a passion to rival her own, and more than a streak of cruelty.

MICHAEL: Why do you always go for broke, Sal?
SALLY: I don’t play for halves. I take it all the way.
MICHAEL: There can’t be any good come out of it. You know that?
SALLY: You said we had nothing to do with goodness or kindness.
MICHAEL: We’ll destroy each other.
SALLY: Destruction? Well, perhaps that’s the only way I’ll get my wish.

Sally has an abortion, marries a man who isn’t Michael, breaks his heart and leaves him and the child she had with him, becomes a Communist, is expelled from the party for denouncing Stalin’s atrocities, and finally stands trial before all the authority figures whose voices still ring in her head, pronouncing her guilty.

This was stunning subject matter in 1971 and so was Hewett’s writing style. There are giant masks on stage (denoting the authority figures), songs, a chorus, poems and plenty of sex. And then there is Hewett’s message: anti-authoritarian, revelling in the joys of the flesh and proudly female.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: suitable for large casts but some characters could be doubled.

130: Mongrels

29 Jul

Nick Enright’s death in 2003 was a great loss to Australian theatre. Reading Mongrels today made me feel the loss once again.


Enright was inspired to write Mongrels by the lives and deaths of two famous Australian playwrights, Jim McNeil and Peter Kenna. The play is biographical in its subject matter and, although he’s changed their names, any one who knows their stories will recognise them in the production.

Jim McNeil wrote his first play when he was in prison for armed robbery. He was a violent drunk who had used his quick temper and ability with words to retain his sense of power. When the theatre community recognised his talent and lobbied for his release, he had found the champions he wanted. But it didn’t take long for him to alienate all those who had campaigned for him and to end up back on the streets.

Peter Kenna also came from a working class background, but he found theatre much earlier than McNeil and established a reputation as a playwright while he was still young. He suffered from renal failure and spent many years hooked up to dialysis machines, dreaming of what he could write if he had the strength and freedom.

In Mongrels, McNeil is called Burke and Kenna is O’Hara. The details about their lives listed above are all part of the play, but the strongest theme is the rivalry between the two men. From the moment they first meet, they are at each other’s throats.

BURKE: I’ll write my own titles. I’m going to bury you. Six foot under. Your plays are pissweak.
O’HARA: And which ones have you read? Name them.
BURKE: You don’t have to be a poonce in a bow-tie to read. I’ll bury you, O’Hara.
O’HARA: There’s no competition here. No prizes.

But there is a competition: to get their plays produced and to win awards. When O’Hara’s play flops and Burke’s is a run away success, the pupil outstrips the master and O’Hara’s place in the world is threatened. On the eve of the operation where his sister will give him one of her kidneys, he admits his fear to a young actor.

O’HARA: I’ll be a free man. And I’m frightened. Of freedom. For ten years I’ve used this body to drive me. I thought, I can hang on, I have so much more to say. And what if I don’t? Suppose they do the job and I can piss an arc like a rainbow? What good will that be if I’ve lost what drives me?

Mongrels has a cast of great, rounded characters, not just the two playwrights. There are four lovely roles for women, including the part of Elaine who was O’Hara’s producer and director until she fell for Burke and ended up marrying him. O’Hara’s latest play that he’s written since his transplant is a bit of a dog and Elaine tells him so to his face.

ELAINE: Talk about cheap cracks. Why can’t you get that amount of venom into your play? Get your hands dirty, a bit of blood and bile. All right, you’ve cut out the soliloquies, and they all say fuck instead of crikey, and they talk about their mortgages and the oil crisis. But they’re still plucky little victims. And I’m no longer interested in victims. On or off the page.

I love the way Mongrels examines creativity, rivalry and theatre and the shots that Enright takes at playwrights stealing material from life, just as he is doing with this play. It’s clever, dark and thoughtful writing.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 4M, 5F can be doubled with 3M, 3F

129: Her Aching Heart

28 Jul

This is another of Bryony Lavery’s early plays and is a spoof with a subversive edge. Think historical romance and all the cliches of the genre and then give it lesbian protagonists and you’ll have a pretty good idea of Her Aching Heart.

cover image for bodice ripper romance

Bodice Ripper

The play was written to be performed by two women, each playing multiple characters, with hilarious stage directions to denote the different characters: “A yokel enters with a bunch of simple hedgerow flowers. Although in these penurious times he may bear a passing resemblance to Harriet in a red wig he is a completely different character.” Gorgeous! I love the way Lavery has kept the purple prose in the stage directions as well as in the dialogue. The whole thing reads like a wonderfully over the top romance from start to finish.

Harriet and Molly are two contemporary characters who’ve met at a conference and exchanged phone numbers. They are, coincidentally, both reading the same dodgy romance with two heroines also called Harriet and Molly. In a matter of minutes we are inside the story and seeing both the overblown romance and the contemporary relationship. Harriet Helstone is a rich and spoilt young woman, setting off on a hunt on her estate.

HARRIET: Oh how weary I am of our rakish friends! How tired I am of rich and dissolute men! How fatigued I am with beautiful and powdered women! Small wonder I am ardent and wilful! Small wonder London society is agog with my outrageous pranks. Little wonder that a devil of discontent mars my otherwise lovely countenance!

Molly is a fair country lass who tries to rescue the fox Harriet is hunting.

MOLLY: Oh, poor thing … you’re quivering with fright! What can we do? I’ll take you home to my poor but specklessly clean cottage … Oh no … my gown is caught on the thorn bush! I’m trapped! Oh no!!!!

The two meet and sparks soon fly as in all the best romances.

HARRIET: That girl! That ridiculous, stupid, ignorant, uneducated, untitled girl! Where did she go? How dare she leave before I dismissed her? How dare she dash away to … where … a hovel I suppose … a nasty, low, dirty cote in the village I suppose … I suppose there is a village down there in the valley … I suppose she is there even now … surrounded by her low folk … telling her snivelling tale …

MOLLY: That lady! That rude, cruel, arrogant, overweening, proud lady! How could she? How could she kill my fox friend? I expect she has mounted her horse … and ridden off up that high hill … to where? … to Helstone Hall I suppose … and she is sitting there now with all her mighty and powerful friends … laughing at my plight … sneering at my red-haired friend’s death …

Her Aching Heart is full of songs and I imagine it would be a lot of fun and silliness staged. In her introduction to the book, Lavery says:

“Luckily I had spent my radiant teens alternately swotting for Latin, English and History ‘A’ levels and bunking off to read Georgette Heyer and Daphne du Maurier. Admirers of the British education system will discover in the text a cornucopia of romantic gush, at least five non-adjacent historical periods … and five words of Latin.”

Publisher: Methuen Drama (included in Bryony Lavery: Plays 1)

Cast: 2F (with lots of doubling)

128: The 7 Stages of Grieving

27 Jul

I first saw The 7 Stages of Grieving when it was presented at Metro Arts in 1995. It was an incredible production performed by Deborah Mailman, directed by Wesley Enoch and co-written by the two of them. I still remember moments of the production, can still hear Deb saying “Reckon it’s a silly nation” and can still feel the rawness I felt by the end. As if my chest had been scraped on the inside and my throat was choked with tears.

The play script is sparse as much of the production took place in action, projection and singing, but it still packs a punch. The book also contains interesting essays, histories, translations and timelines.

The 7 Stages of Grieving is a play about Indigenous identity in Australia, about this country’s history, and about grieving and reconciliation. It’s a one-woman show where the woman is not a particular character but a story-teller and every Indigenous woman. She shares the griefs and joys, tells the story of Daniel Yocke (or Yock as it is more often spelled), an Aboriginal young man who died sometime between being arrested by police and arriving at the Brisbane City Watchhouse in 1993.

This is rousing, moving, heart-breaking theatre. The script is broken into short sections, each with its own title. Some are funny, some are wordless and some are tragic. I loved Invasion Poem, which is rich with images. Instead of thinking of the narrator of this one as one particular woman, think of her as Aboriginal culture, or perhaps land. That makes lines like the following easier to understand:

Without warning
They broke from our soft
Whispered conversation.
One took a handful of my hair and led my head to their knee.
Another washed his face in my blood.
Together they ploughed my feet. My feet.

My children, stolen away to a safe place,
Were wrenched from familiar arms and
Forced to feed upon another tongue.

For me, one of the most beautiful stories is of Aunty Grace who comes to the narrator’s grandmother’s funeral. Everyone thinks she’s stuck up. She’s been gone for years after marrying an Englishman after WWII.

For some reason she didn’t stay, which in my family is strange. […] Nana used to say, “Just when all our men were coming home and we had our share to bury too, she upped and left us. The Black Princess sipping tea with the Queen. Now I’m a Christian woman and I forgive her but … No more. No more talkin of her.”

The narrator tells how she drove Aunty Grace out to the cemetery on the way to the airport, how no one else from the family came to see her off, how Aunty Grace sat at the graveside for a long time and then took her suitcase, threw out the contents and filled it with red earth from the grave. Crying, at last, crying.

The 7 Stages of Grieving is a beautiful play on stage and on the page. It’s a generous gift that allows non-Indigenous audiences to feel something of what our Indigenous neighbours, friends and co-workers experience constantly.

Publisher: Playlab Press

Cast: 1F

127: Innocence

26 Jul

Frank McGuinness’ Innocence is another wildly imaginative play based on a historical, biographical figure. This time he’s chosen the painter Caravaggio as his central character and what a passionate protagonist he is!

Caravaggio's John the Baptist

John the Baptist, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), from Web Gallery of Art.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian artist in the sixteenth century, famous for getting into fights, spending time in prison, killing a man and having a Papal death warrant placed on his head. It was no surprise that he died young. He drank to excess, flared to temper quickly and loved recklessly.

In Innocence, Caravaggio lusts for young men, acts as a pimp procuring their services for Cardinals, and loves a whore, Lena (Magdalena). No wonder the play caused an outcry in Catholic Ireland.

I love the way McGuinness blends dreams, art, lust, carnality, religion and gender politics in this play. Lena the whore loves and cares for Caravaggio, bathing and washing his wounds. Together they play fantasy games where they marry and have a child, but Lena knows all too well that Caravaggio lusts for boys, not her. In one moment his temper flares with her and she hits him.

LENA: Who the hell do you think you are? Who do you think you are dealing with? Some penny piece of pansy rough you scraped off the streets? By Jesus, boy, you should know better than to try that caper.

Caravaggio does have a penchant for a bit of rough:

CARAVAGGIO: Their shirts were white. The body underneath was brown. I could hear the white of their shirts touch their flesh. I knew they could see me listening in the dark. […] They were as near to me as you are, but in their youth and desire they were as far away as the stars in the sky. I wanted to raise my fist and grab them from the sky and throw them into the gutter where I found them. I wanted to dirty their white shirts with blood. I wanted to smash their laughing skulls together for eternity. I wanted the crack of their killing to be music in my ears. I wanted them dead. I wanted red blood from their brown flesh to stain their white shirts and shout out this is painting, this is colour, these are beautiful and they are dead.

Later he does kill a man, but it’s not one of the young boys he described above. The murder means he has to flee for his life, leaving behind Lena, who loves him still.

LENA: I dreamt I stood in a room, a beautiful room. All bright. Pictures on the walls. All yours. I was in the centre of the room but I wasn’t in the painting. I looked at them and I looked up and I saw you looking down at me. […] And I started to laugh because it hit me you were looking at them from above, so you must see them all upside-down, and I knew then somehow we’d won, we turned the world upside-down, the goat and the whore, the queer and his woman.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (published in Frank McGuinness: Plays 1)

Cast: 6M, 3F

126: Far Away

25 Jul

I recently attended a playwriting masterclass with Jane Bodie (it was on structure and it was fantastic) and, as part of the class, we read Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. It was a glorious play to analyse structurally and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

cat on chair

"The cats have come in on the side of the French."

On the surface, Far Away is a piece of absurdist writing in three distinct sections, each progressively more bizarre. Beneath the surface it’s a play about the brutality and arbitrary nature of war and our complicity in accepting the unacceptable. At the start of the play we see a young girl, Joan, who can’t sleep talking to her aunt, Harper. It appears domestic and ordinary but is anything but.

HARPER: Do you miss your dog?
JOAN: I miss the cat I think.
HARPER: Does it sleep on your bed?
JOAN: No because I chase it off. But it gets in if the door’s not properly shut.

As Joan talks we realise that she’s witnessed something terrible and that her aunt is lying to cover up the atrocities. This is brilliant and chilling writing. The suspense builds as we discover the child heard a scream, “an owl” says her aunt, that she saw her uncle bundling a person into a shed, “that’s just friends of his your uncle was having a little party with” says the aunt.

JOAN: If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?
HARPER: There isn’t any blood.

As each horror is revealed by the child, the aunt has an answer for it. For an audience, your mind is racing with the images of what has just happened offstage and what it really was that Joan saw. Are her uncle and aunt part of a people smuggling operation? Is this a play about Nazi Germany? Were the people in the lorry refugees? Were they being taken to a concentration camp? But the child is too young to ask the questions we want asked and she seems to believe her aunt’s answers, so we’re left with a terrible dis-ease, but no idea of what’s really happening.

The second section is set in a hat shop several years later, on Joan’s first day at her new job. She and her workmate Todd are making huge, extravagant hats for a parade. They have to be completed in a week. They appear to be working for a huge bureaucracy or perhaps for the state and what they are creating are works of colourful art to be worn by prisoners in a parade. Churchill stipulates that there should be an actual parade and includes the most bizarre stage direction in her list of characters: “The Parade: five is too few and twenty better than ten. A hundred?” We discover that the prisoners were paraded in the hats on their way to their execution.

JOAN: It seems so sad to burn them with the bodies.
TODD: No I think that’s the joy of it. The hat are ephemeral. It’s like a metaphor for something or other.

Neither Joan nor Todd seem at all disturbed by the idea that dozens of prisoners are killed every week and burnt – it’s the loss of their art that matters more. Big breath. Is this Churchill talking about those of us who make art, see art and talk about it while there are atrocities committed all over the world by governments, terrorists and dictators?

The third section takes place back at the aunt’s home several years later when Todd and Joan are married. They have become politicised, but then the whole world has. Even animals, children under five and insects are taking sides.

HARPER: The cats have come in on the side of the French.

The first time you read or see this on stage, it’s a WTF? moment. Did Churchill really write that? Yes, she did and it gets more bizarre by the sentence.

TODD: Do we include mallards in this?
HARPER: Mallards are not a good waterbird. They commit rape, and they’re on the side of the elephants and the Koreans. But crocodiles are always in the wrong.

Joan has gone AWOL from whatever force or side she is on to spend a day with Todd.

JOAN: Of course birds saw me, everyone saw me walking along but nobody knew why, I could have been on a mission, everyone’s moving about and no one knows why, and in fact I killed two cats and a child under five so it wasn’t that different from a mission […]

The play seems mad, but then so does war. Choosing sides based on geography, skin colour, religion or politics is just as crazy and that seems to be what Churchill wanted us to consider when she wrote Far Away.

Publisher: Nick Hern Books

Cast: 2F, 1M and a parade of prisoners