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209: Food

16 May

Steve Rodgers’ Food is a delightful drama that incorporates singing, cooking onstage and feeding the audience in its directions. Rodgers suggests that the play be informed by a physical aesthetic and when I saw it performed this had certainly been taken to heart.

2 women in kitchen

Production photo of Food. Starring Kate Box and Emma Jackson.

Food centres on the relationship between two sisters who have been apart for a number of years and have now come together after the death of their mother. Elma stayed at home and worked in the family take away. She has been the dutiful, good daughter and she resents it deeply. Nancy was always the wayward child and she left after sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend.

Elma’s tough and hard as nails on the outside, but that’s because she was always the girl no one wanted. She describes a truth and dare session as children where Nancy was coveted and groped as part of the dare and where, when it came to Elma’s turn, all the boys made excuses to avoid kissing her until she burst into tears and had to run away humiliated.

ELMA: I don’t shower, throw things, break things, try to get drunk. What I do? … I come into the shop, the kitchen sit myself down, and make a sandwich … Bacon, fried egg, cheese, tomato, mayo, white bread, heaps of butter … And I eat.

Nancy is damaged – one of the most harrowing scenes in the play is where we learn of her being gang raped as a teenager – and now she uses her sexuality to barter for position and power.

Rodgers has captured the rivalry, tenderness and jealousy that is so often a part of a relationship between sisters beautifully.

For Nancy and Elma, it comes to a head when they have to hire a kitchen hand and end up employing Hakan – a charming Turkish man.

ELMA: There’s one thing worse than a bullshit artist […] That’s a bullshit artist can’t keep his hands to himself … You mind your manners, and don’t fuck us around. Understand? … Or I’ll cut it clean off, and sew a button on.

[…]

HAKAN: Hassikter … This Elma is one tough lady … Imagine, a button sewn on between your legs? … A very disturbing image, yes? … But I understand why Elma is thinking this way … I am a man. I feel these things, think these things. Love admiring the women all the day.

One of the things I like most about Food is that Rodgers avoids the obvious path. He doesn’t give us the ending we expect (and perhaps long for), but gives us one that is much more satisfying and honest.

Publisher: Playlab – published in Downstairs at Belvoir, alongside Medea and Old Man.
Characters: 2F, 1 M

208: Medea

15 May

Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’ reimagining of Medea is completely different to any other version of the classic Greek text you’re likely to read. It’s written from the perspective of Medea’s children, shut in their bedroom while their parents go through their final bitter confrontation.

Medea detail of painting

Detail from Anselm Feuerbach’s Medea

Leon and Jasper are young boys in a contemporary setting. They have iPods and glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the walls. They mention Facebook and sing Beatles’ songs but they also tell the story of their parents’ meeting, which involves Argonauts and a golden fleece, so there’s a blend of ‘now’ and ‘long ago’.

The two boys have been locked in their room and they do what most siblings would in the circumstances: they bicker, fight, play, joke and torment each other. It’s all very normal and also unbearably sad because, of course, we all know what happens to Medea’s children.

After Medea enters and asks them to make a card for their “Dad’s friend” (the inverted commas are part of the way they refer to Glauce) and tells them they’re going to be moving to her mansion, the boys are beside themselves with excitement. It’s not that they like “Dad’s friend” – but the thought of living in a mansion is pretty amazing, and maybe they could do away with the “friend” in the process.

JASPER: Maybe we should kill her. Like … eat heaps of beans and then sneak into her bedroom and fart in a pillowcase and then put it over her head and watch her suffocate on our fart gas. 

LEON: I don’t think that would work.

JASPER: I reckon if I ate enough beans it would.

LEON: You don’t even like beans.

JASPER: It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Mulvany and Sarks wrote the play after an intensive two-week workshop with two young boys and the dialogue has the authentic feel of children’s play and conversation.

They’ve also managed to make Medea appear a loving mother – never an easy task given her crimes. The end of the play as she cuddles and talks to her two boys is deeply moving.

Publisher: Playlab – published in Downstairs at Belvoir, alongside Food and Old Man.
Characters: 2 M (children), 1 F

207: Head Full of Love

2 Apr

Alana Valentine’s Head Full of Love is a charming bit of storytelling – filled with humour and sensitivity as it tackles the serious issues of renal failure in indigenous Australians and mental problems in … well, all of us.

Head Full of Love

Colette Mann and Roxanne MacDonald in QTC’s production

The play features two characters: one Aboriginal and one Caucasian. They are both older women and it’s delightful to read a play intended for mature actors. Nessa is an older white woman who is running away from something. She’s landed up in Alice Springs with almost no money and an invisible person sitting on her shoulder.

Tilly is an Aboriginal woman from the Pitjantjatjara. She is busily crocheting beanies for the Alice Springs annual beanie festival and is finding it difficult to finish her entry for the competition because of her ongoing dialysis treatment. Renal failure is a real problem for Indigenous Australians – they are more than nine times more likely to be affected by End Stage Renal Disease than non-Indigenous Australians. For Tilly, it means that she has to spend four hours on dialysis three times a week.

Nessa strikes up a conversation with Tilly when she asks Tilly to show her how to crochet. Soon Tilly has persuaded Nessa to give her a ride to the clinic for her dialysis and the two overcome their initial awkwardness with each other and gradually become friends.

While Tilly’s dialogue comes across as very broken on the page, Valentine is explicit in her writer’s notes that this is because she is speaking in a second or third language and that her words should be performed with “variation, nuance and dynamism” – rather than stumbled through.

Head Full of Love has plenty of pathos, but one scene I particularly enjoyed reading was the scene where Nessa describes getting lost in the bush. It’s a soliloquy delivered to the audience and is particularly effective.

NESSA                  And if your skin is crawling because the poverty is so epidemic and the hardship is so obvious and there is so much filth and filth and dirt … then just accept it.

Or get in your car and drive away not because you can’t handle it, no, just because, because you still have that choice.

Published by Playlab 2014
Characters – 2 F

206: Riflemind

4 May

Andrew Upton’s Riflemind is surprisingly only the second play from this prolific writer – but that’s because most of the others have been adaptations of classics or screenplays.

Riflemind

Riflemind was written in 2007 and produced by Sydney Theatre Company in the same year and is a grungy, often funny look at an ageing rock band getting together after 20 years to prepare for a comeback tour.

The play takes place over a week in the palatial country home of John, Riflemind’s frontman. The other band members arrive by helicopter and the tension from the start is communicated in broken stretches of dialogue where the characters interrupt, trail off and step carefully around John’s temper and ego. There’s also the decades of drugs, booze and fame that have taken a toll on the thinking and clarity of all the characters.

JOHN: And everyone was grasping and snatching and calling my name. It was like a fucking battlefield – a blizzard of flash bulbs crashing like hail into my head, sticking drugs in every hole. 

It was the only quiet time I got to myself was shooting up.

One of the most touching scenes is when Lynn, John’s wife, has gone on a bender after years of their shared sobriety and he finds her sitting in the vegetable drawer of the fridge with her pants down around her ankles. It’s awful and should be humiliating, but John’s tenderness and acceptance of his wife’s frailty make it strangely poignant.

And then there’s the maudlin fact of their comeback tour, that they may all be past it now, that it might all be too late.

SAM: Life? It’s just lots and lots of little things, Phil. People throw the odd punch, till their grave sure, if they’re lucky. Dying breath, even, maybe. But the real defeat builds up slowly. Very slowly.

There are surprise denouements at the end of the play that make sense of the tension and rivalry that’s been evident from the start but they come too late for empathy with the volatile and selfish characters that make up Riflemind. Which I think may be Upton’s point: that no matter how far we run, we can’t escape the past.

Publisher: Currency Press

Characters: 5m, 2f

205: The Shoe-Horn Sonata

4 Jun

John Misto’s award-winning play The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a moving tribute to the Australian nurses held prisoner by the Japanese in the Second World War. In 1942, 65 Australian Army nurses were among the hundreds of thousands of women and children taken prisoner in Singapore. Most of them died over the next three years, but a few survived the horrendous POW camps and this is their story.

play and woman

Misto did extensive research and vowed to tell the hidden story, the one that governments preferred to forget. Unlike the fallen soldiers from wars, there were no memorials to the nurses or the civilians who were captured and murdered during the Second World War. Misto donated his prize money to their cause and in 1999 at long last a memorial was unveiled.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a play for two older women. It’s a memory play and a play about friendship and broken trust. Bridie was an Army Nurse captured by the Japanese. Sheila was a young girl sent out of Singapore by her parents on a boat that was torpedoed in the harbour.

The two characters are Misto’s invention, but you can sense that many parts of the story they tell are similar to what he heard from many of the women he interviewed. In his author’s notes he writes: “Although the characters of Bridie and Sheila are fictional, every incident they describe is true and occurred between 1942 and 1995.”

To stop the play becoming maudlin with reminiscing, Misto gives his two protagonists a burning problem for the present. After rescuing each other time and again and being closer than many of us ever get to be, Bridie and Sheila have not seen each other since the end of the war. During the course of The Shoe-Horn Sonata we gradually find out why.

And the play’s title? The women formed a choir and used Bridie’s shoe-horn as a metronome.

SHEILA: We forgot the Japs – we forgot our hunger – our boils – barbed-wire – everything … Together we made this glorious sound that rose above the camp – above the jungle – above the war – rose and rose and took us with it. Fifty voices set us free.

BRIDIE: Fifty voices and a shoe-horn …

Publisher: Currency Press (1996)

Cast: 2F (and 1M voice over)

For more information on the women prisoners of war, read this article by Hank Nelson in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial.

199: The Matilda Women

30 Jan

Sue Rider’s The Matilda Women has been through several reprints: a mark of its longevity and popularity, especially for student productions.

The play was written to celebrate the lives of “early Queensland women” and it does so through song, theatrical play and ensemble work. Originally produced with a cast of four, playing all the characters between them, it could also be staged with a large female cast.

Flower Study by Vida Lahey

Flower Study by Vida Lahey

Some of the women whose lives are remembered and honoured in The Matilda Women are Vida Lahey (artist), Gladys Moncrieff (singer), Emma Miller (equal rights activist) and Dr Lilian Cooper (gynaecologist, surgeon and doctor).

We also learn the tragic stories of Mary Watson (who fled Aborigines only to end up on an island without water, where she, her baby and her cook all died) and Ellen Thomson. In 1887, Ellen was the first and last woman to be given the death sentence and hanged in Queensland. She was executed for her husband’s murder, with no evidence to suggest that it wasn’t suicide, apart from gossip that suggested she was having an affair.

ELLEN: I was eleven years old when I came to this colony from Ireland. I was a young and pretty girl. I struggled hard for my livelihood. Then, after thirty years, I’m working for a poor, miserable, helpless old man. He was that jealous of every other man that I could scarcely live. He was old, sickly and miserable and I’ve heard him threaten suicide many times. If I’d wanted to kill him, I could many times have shoved the wretched, crawling old man into the river to be taken by the alligators, but I could never have hurt a hair of his head.

Ellen Thomson

Ellen Thomson - hanged in 1887 aged 41

The Matilda Women succeeds in creating a theatrical tale from some of Queensland’s almost forgotten figures. Rider rescues them from the shadows of history and presents an entertaining and informative alternative version of “her-story”.

Publisher: Playlab Press

Cast: 4F – 20F (depending on doubling)

192: Colder

3 Jan

Lachlan Philpott wrote Colder after a close friend (Simon Knight) went missing and didn’t come back. In his play, David is a gay man in his mid thirties who has been missing once before, when he was seven.

Bison and Colder

At that time, David and his mother were atDisneyland, queuing for a ride. Past and present weave together throughout Colder as the action shifts from David’s first disappearance to his second, possibly permanent one.

There’s his mother, Robyn, played at 33, frantic in Disneyland and also at 59, a woman trying to keep things safe by locking them in Tupperware. There’s his best friend Kay, pregnant and alone. There’s his latest lover, Ed, and a parade of one-night stands.

The language is densely poetic, sentences overlap and different characters in different times finish off each other’s thoughts.

ED/ROBYN59: Will all these questions help

ED: I don’t know what was going on all I know is that he has …

KAY: That David isn’t anywhere to be found. We’ve called, we’ve looked we’ve searched and he has gone.

There’s also repetition to reinforce the musical rhythm of the language.

ROBYN59: I stare at her. Blink and wait for things to go back to colour.

ED: I stare at her and wait for him to jump out from behind something and laugh

KAY: Stare at her and wait for the colour that drained to return.

ED: Stare as she fiddles with a pen

ROBYN59: Hear her breath shorten, as the gap between when I asked and when she answers stretches out forever.

Colder is almost a radio play in its lyric description and lack of physical action. David is an enigma, his monologue near the end of the play raising more questions than it answers. Readers and audiences will strive to solve the puzzle because we can’t bear the loose strings, the not knowing. But in the real world most puzzles aren’t resolved. Some people disappear and never come back.

The closest we get to finding out what happened to David at the theme park is this, a few sentences sandwiched in another conversation, easy to miss:

DAVID: If I am away for a little while it won’t matter, while you are losing something in your bag, while you are rummaging for something in your pocket while you are humming something in your mouth while you are grimacing at the sun shielding your eyes and checking the map. Just a few steps.

Did he walk away and hide or was he taken when he left his mother’s side? Like his mother, we never know what happened to David in the theme park and, like everyone who loves him, we never know what happened to him as an adult. His mother’s desperate pledge is just words, weighted only by breath and longing…

ROBYN33: I will rip out my eyes and glue them to your feet to follow you everywhere you could go.

Publisher: Playlab Press (Published with Bison)

Cast: 3F, 3M

186: Fractions

23 Nov

Marcel Dorney’s Fractions is a brilliant, exciting drama that teaches us as much about history as it does about the present.

Jolene Anderson as Hypatia in Fractions

Jolene Anderson as Hypatia in Queensland Theatre Company's production of Fractions

I was fortunate enough to see the opening night of its world premiere performance and to read the script the following day. This double immersion was incredibly satisfying and I’m glad I had the experiences in the order that I did rather than reading the play and then seeing the show. (This way there were no preconceptions or disappointment over characters not matching my imagination.)

Fractions tells the story of Hypatia, philosopher, teacher, astronomer, mathematician and the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria. Dorney is quick to note that his work is fiction, taking the tiny amount we know about Hypatia and using it as a provocation for some big questions.

While Hypatia is often portrayed as a martyr, Dorney makes her more complex than this. His Hypatia appears proud, cold and stubborn but these are a direct result of her searing intellect. She has devoted herself to learning and to mathematics: there is no place in her life for relationships or ‘petty’ things like religion, love or politics and this is what causes her downfall.

Hypatia is oblivious to the climate outside her library. She doesn’t realise that she is hated and feared for being a pagan in a city that has recently become Christian. When she is advised to convert to Christianity to protect herself and her library, she refuses, seeing it as a betrayal of her ethics.

HYPATIA: I am a teacher of mathematics, Magistrate. That is my one essential quality: as fire burns, or water is wet, I teach mathematics, or I am not.

That quality, in turn, derives from a principle: the search for truth, through rational inquiry. I do not claim to know the truth about the Kosmos. I do claim a dedication – to describing the Kosmos more truly. It is this dedication, and only this, that justifies the breath I draw.

But if I was to use that breath to profess a faith – that I do not share – I could no longer claim dedication to that principle […]

So far, everything I’ve mentioned here is to do with the history but Fractions is also a mirror for us now. Fear of the other, clinging to doctrines to justify hate, censorship of thoughts that differ from the norm, driving out other religions and destroying anything that challenges your faith – these are all just as present now as they were in 400 AD.

The only jarring note in the play (for me) was Dorney’s choice to incorporate contemporary slang in the often poetic and beautiful dialogue. Characters refer to each other as ‘mate’ and ‘kid’, there’s the occasional ‘f*ck’ and each time it happens, the line stands out like dog’s balls.

I understand the reasoning behind the decision to modernise the language. Dorney didn’t want to write a costume drama, he wanted it to be relevant and to speak to audiences right now in ways that they (we) understand. But, for me, each time there was a particularly ocker line I was thrown out of the play and back into my own skin. When Hypatia says, “You gonna protect me, are you, kid?” I expect her to ride off into a Western sunset and the world of the play cracks a little.

Aside from this miniscule quibble, Fractions was an absolute joy to read and to see. It left me with a hunger to know more about Hypatia, Orestes, Kyril and Synesius and with a deep love for the barbarian Rika.

As someone who was born stubborn and sticks to her morals and ethics even when doing so is blatantly stupid and self-harming, I found personal and philosophical comfort and warnings in Hypatia’s story. And her terrible quandary was just as bad as the titular one in Sophie’s Choice. Fearing the imminent destruction of her library, Hypatia has to choose which of the unique, priceless, books to save.

HYPATIA: I have, first, to – find the five hundred books out of eighty thousand, which I can tell you –

– but I won’t.
Let’s consider, instead, that we then have to splinter that tiny fraction into five … each of which has to contain enough of the history of ten separate disciplines, so that even if all four of its sisters were intercepted and destroyed –
When I say ‘we’, of course, I mean me. This is my job.

I had goosebumps and felt sick just at the thought of how much was lost, forever, and the small fraction that Hypatia saved.

If you’re in Brisbane, hurry and see the Queensland Theatre Company production of Fractions before it finishes. It’s also playing at Hothouse Theatre in Wodonga next year.

Publisher: Playlab Press

Cast: 4M, 1F

183: Aftershocks

13 Nov

This verbatim play by Paul Brown is a moving tribute to some of the people affected by the Newcastle earthquake in 1989, which killed 13 people. Aftershocks centres on the Newcastle Workers’ Club, which was one of the worst affected sites and collapsed in the earthquake resulting in nine deaths.

Newcastle Workers Club after earthquake

The Newcastle Workers Club after the earthquake in 1989

I was fascinated to read about the process Brown went through to write the play: he was employed as a Writer in Residence by the Workers’ Cultural Action Committee, specifically so that he could write a verbatim play about the earthquake. Straight away this makes Aftershocks community theatre as well as verbatim theatre. Brown worked with a steering committee and research team and licensed the stories from the interviewees, giving them control of their own stories and a say over what happened to them and how they were represented.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster of you want to create theatre that will play anywhere outside the community it’s been written for, and yet Aftershocks is a powerful and moving play. It’s tempting to refer to it as having universal themes and to talk about the courage of ordinary people as they put their lives on the line to rescue their colleagues, but I think this is a very specific play about particular people who showed great courage and selflessness. And, yes, there are people who display courage in every disaster, but this story is so intimate and personal, that it is these particular individuals we need to stand up and cheer for at the end of the play and not the generic Aussie battler.

Being a verbatim piece means the individual voices are incredibly clear and distinct: they’re rough, unequivocally Australian and working class, and their observations are often surprising. When Bob comments that it was so dark “it was like being inside a cow”, you get an immediate, visceral image of the scene.

Some of the recollections of the moment of the earthquake are also incredibly vivid and striking.

LYN: Something’s falling off the roof. I get up from the desk, walk one step, and then the lights are out. One more step, and I see all the bricks come down … just at my doorway. And everything just keeps tumbling. The big unit, the air conditioning unit, comes off the roof … just sheers straight down in front, and everything just keeps on falling. I don’t scream. And as quick as it starts it stops. And I sort of stop, and look around. I know every inch of that club, but I can’t orientate myself. Just nothing left there. Just quietness, you know, really it’s just so still. Then the alarms and the screaming …

HOWARD: The walls were basically like flags in the wing, just flapping in the wind. Unbelievable that brick walls could do that […]

KERRY: The ceiling, it was … just like it was gradually crawling towards the bar the way it was coming down and … then the first thing I saw that did come away was the back wall … and that’s when the whole roof just kept coming and coming.

Aftershocks manages to be true to the stories of the particular survivors who were interviewed and also a dramatic and gripping play in its own right.

Publisher: Currency Press (1993)

Cast: Can be doubled with 3M, 3F or 7M, 9F without doubling.

181: Bison

2 Nov

I felt confronted reading Bison. Most probably because I was on the bus and worried that the person sitting next to me might notice I was reading something pretty close to gay porn on my way to work.

Bison

There was page after page of descriptions of cocks of all sizes and in all sorts of places (and I’m not talking about the feathered variety of cock – although after reading Bison I wouldn’t be surprised if some did have feathery implants).

Lachlan Philpott’s use of language and rhythm is gorgeous and he had me entranced and horrified in equal measures. In my view, this is a good thing. Theatre should provoke reactions and Philpott’s juxtaposition of beauty and degradation is confronting, exciting and moving.

Bison is about the gay scene and is written so that it can be located in pretty much any city. I was concerned that it plays into homophobic stereotypes of all gay men being promiscuous, on the beat and obsessed with f*cking. While Philpott shows this is definitely a reality for some, he also explores long-term relationships, bitingly highlights the preoccupation with looks in the gay scene and reflects on the longing for intimacy in a world where immediacy is all that matters.

Every bar I enter I hope that things will be different. That it can stop. That I can turn off this hunger, this searching, this treading. I will find it here, I will find it and that will make all of this worth it.

Each actor plays a named character and also plays a variety of other characters or voices denoted by a number rather than names. These voices speak and interrupt in fragmentary overlapping dialogue and are particularly effective at conjuring the online world of chatrooms and chatroulette. They also convey the kaleidoscopic nature of clubs and drugs mingled with a half-dream, half-waking state.

1-4: Clock ticks
4: Something on my lips, petrol?/

1: Amyl?/
1/3: Something on my lips

1: Is it?/

3: A goodbye kiss/

2: On my lips, salty, sweet taste/

1-4: the words on my lips/

2/3/4: Clock ticks

There is brutality, especially in the scene with the man who ends up in the emergency ward after the ‘best sex’ of his life. It hurts to read Bison because the loneliness is so all pervasive. The quick thrill, the fantasy and the anonymity of online hookups merge with the sadness of being too old, too fat, too soft or too small. In this meat market there are several rejections for every pickup and it’s a wonder anyone emerges with a sense of self intact.

Publisher: Playlab Press (published with Colder)

Cast: 4M