155: The Knowing of Mary Poppins

23 Aug

I saw this gem of a play a few years ago and marvelled at the story, the language and the gorgeous physicality of the telling. Reading it now, the language is even more impressive.

young PL Travers

PL Travers in 1923 (acting in a play)

The Knowing of Mary Poppins was written in a collective devising process by Marcel Dorney, Leah Mercer, Margi Brown Ash, Stace Callaghan and Carol Schmidt. The play follows the rather eccentric life of the author of the Mary Poppins’ books: PL Travers. Travers (real name Helen Lyndon Goff) was born in Maryborough, Queensland and followed a spiritual and spirited path that took her to England, the motherland she’d been missing all her life growing up in Australia. “It’s not where I come from. It’s where I was born. There is a difference.”

The play is written to be performed by three actors: the nymph, the mother and the crone (the three faces of PL Travers). They also play all the other characters, from Mary Poppins herself, to Walt Disney, and even sunlight.

It’s fascinating to see that Travers followed Gurdjieff, the same guru Katherine Mansfield followed in Alma De Groen’s gorgeous play The Rivers of China.

CRONE: Naturally, many tried to paint him as a fraud. An egomaniac. An opportunist. He demanded and received a lot of money from very rich people.
GURDJIEFF: Shearing sheep.
MOTHER: That’s what he calls it.

As she’s depicted in The Knowing of Mary Poppins, PL Travers was smart, driven, selfish and most definitely eccentric. Her career motivated her at all times as did her spiritual search. In some ways she sold out to Walt Disney: letting him tame and sugarcoat her creation so that the film version of Mary Poppins bore little relation to the woman Travers felt she’d always known.

MOTHER: […] I did like Julie Andrews, she had the nose for the part. Literally, that little upturned snout of hers – quite ravishing. Which only made the antics of that man Van Dyke the more annoying.
NYMPH: And the songs?
MOTHER: She sang them well. It was enjoyable, as a series of colours.
CRONE: But everything at the same pitch. Here’s a talking animal. Here’s a flying table. Whee! Isn’t everything just altogether mad around here!

The play is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a remarkable woman. It’s a delicious taste of her biography, told with all the invention and playfulness of theatre.

NYMPH: Can I tell that story?
CRONE: As long as it’s accurate, which is to say truthful. In other words, poetic.

Publisher: Playlab Press (included in Independent Brisbane)

Cast: 3F

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