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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.

203: Doc

14 Apr

Another play by Sharon Pollock today: Doc. This is one of the Canadian playwright’s most acclaimed plays, having garnered her the Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Governor General’s Award for Drama.

cover of Sharon Pollock's Doc

Doc is an autobiographical play about Pollock’s family. Her father, Ev, was a workaholic physician and her mother, nicknamed Bob, suffered depression and alcoholism, eventually committing suicide when Pollock was 18. The play is unflinching and raw, particularly in the way it depicts Pollock herself with all her flaws writ large.

Doc can be compared to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night, because of its autobiographical nature and the examination of a deeply dysfunctional family. But Doc is a more nuanced and hard-hitting piece of drama, in my opinion.

In an interview with Richard Ouzounian for The Toronto Star, Pollock said that: “Sometimes you don’t know what it is you’re writing. Your brain is playing a trick on you. If I knew I was going to delve so deeply into my past life I never would have done it.”

Reading Doc, I could understand why Pollock would have steered clear had she known what she was getting into. Not only is the play autobiographical, she also used real names, with the exception of her own. Apparently, in rehearsals, the director suggested that she change the name of the characters based on her to give herself a little distance. And, yes, there are two characters based on Pollock. Katie, Pollock as a young girl, and Catherine, Pollock in her 30s. Katie gets to experience things as they are happening to her and Catherine offers some perspective, looking back with the vantage of years and distance from her family.

The play is beautifully shaped and very moving. Interestingly, the character most will empathise with is Bob, the alcoholic mother, the one character Pollock had no empathy for while she was growing up. In her interview with Ouzounian she said: “I didn’t like my mother very much when [I] was growing up. I hated her in fact. I used to say, ‘My God, you’re trying to kill yourself again? Couldn’t you even do that right?’”

What makes this play so interesting is the blurring and shifting nature of time and the two versions of the author. One witnessing and reaching out to the past, while the other is oblivious and has to live through all the hurt, blind to the advice being offered.

Publisher: Playwrights Union of Canada (1984)

Cast: 2M, 3F

201: Breaking the Silence

12 Apr

Stephen Poliakoff’s Breaking the Silence was inspired by his grandfather, “a figure immaculately dressed for the opera, who did for a time have his own train, chugging through Lenin’s Russia’.

teapot and book

The play is a wonderful, warm and vivid account of lives disrupted by revolution, lived in the carriage of a train while the world outside changes radically. Poliakoff based it on family history, as told to him by his father, and re-imagined things by setting the whole play in the one train carriage. You can read his account of the merging of fact and fiction here.

Breaking the Silence spans the four years when Nikolai, his wife Eugenia, son Sasha and maid Polya live together in an Imperial style railway carriage, hurtling through a changing country, trapped in an anachronism of the past. The family is Jewish and wealthy. It is 1920 and they are saved from starvation when a Party official meets Nikolai and makes him the Telephone Examiner of the Northern District.

The problem is that Nikolai doesn’t have the slightest intention of doing his new job. He is an inventor and an aristocrat and that is how he intends living his life. The invention on which he is working is one which will break the silence and create sound for motion pictures. In a bullet-ridden luxury rail carriage he obsesses over his invention while Eugenia and Polya try to cover for him so that the authorities won’t discover his laziness.

Everyone in the play changes except for Nikolai, who stays majestic and incorrigible at its heart. Eugenia becomes herself, a strong and vibrant woman after a lifetime of doing what she’s told and fearing her husband’s temper.

EUGENIA: He’s always found the idea of me working extremely unpleasant. He told me once he found the thought repulsive. And I seem to be forbidden more than ever before to touch any of his work, even to glance at it. Sometimes, Polya, I have an intense desire to go through everything of his.

Polya learns to read and gets a job that isn’t just tending to her employers’ needs and Sasha grows ashamed of his father and desperate to fit into the new Russia.

SASHA: When I have to go for a walk with Father – I keep well behind him. He looks so ridiculous, strolling along, in that great coat, with a cane, in the shunting yards, among all this rolling stock here, freight being unloaded, and there he is saying good morning to everyone with a wave, like he’s greeting farm labourers on his estate.

At the end of the play, forced to flee their country, the family finally realises what it’s leaving behind.

NIKOLAI: Nothing I have ever read or been told in my life has prepared me for this shock, the sheer physical sensation when one is faced with leaving one’s native land permanently – like you are being pulled away from a magnetic field and that everything will then stop. It will have been severed.

Breaking the Silence is a beautiful re-imagining of family history and a compelling drama.

Publisher: Methuen Drama

Cast: 5M, 2F

200: Find Me

8 Feb

Olwen Wymark’s play Find Me is a disturbing play about mental illness and difference. The play is based on the true story of “Verity Taylor” (not her real name), a girl who was institutionalised and locked away for behaviour which me might now recognise as belonging somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Broadmoor Hospital exterior

Broadmoor Hospital

Find Me was first produced in 1977, so in many ways it is a historical drama and I would hope that we are better now at diagnosing, treating and having compassion for people suffering from mental illness.

Wymark spent time with Verity’s parents (at the time of her writing the play, Verity was locked up in Rampton Secure Hospital) and was given in depth interviews and access to Verity’s writing. Because her contact was with Verity’s family, rather than with Verity, we see the play through the eyes of those around a girl who couldn’t be contained.

EDWARD [Verity’s father]: All children have little temper tantrums. It’s nothing – out of the way. I’ll speak to her later.

JEAN [Verity’s mother]: She doesn’t do it to you. You don’t know what she’s like. Little temper tantrums! She torments me, Edward. Last week one night when you were away she burst into the bedroom about three o’clock in the morning with the radio turned up full blast. I made her turn it off and then she started dancing and stamping around the room and butting her head against the bed pretending to be a car. I tried to take her into bed with me but she wouldn’t let me touch her.

Verity acts up, runs away and behaves in ways that are unacceptable in our society, but at no time does she seem a candidate for institutionalisation. The tragic part of this play is seeing a young girl grow up in a society that doesn’t know what to do with her, so that she is hospitalised, left bored out of her brain, and then imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of burning a chair. The final speech sums up the tragic tale:

NARRATOR: In November 1975 at the age of twenty, Verity Taylor was charged by the police with the damage of a chair by fire, value six pounds, in a locked ward of a mental hospital where she was a patient. She was remanded in custody to Holloway Prison for a period of three months. She was subsequently tried at Canterbury Crown Court and in February 1976 an order was made for her admission to a maximum security hospital. On February 24th 1976, Verity Taylor was admitted to Broadmoor from where she may not be transferred elsewhere without the permission of the Home Secretary.

As a play, Find Me works because of the lack of chronological time or conventional space. Several actors play each of the parts (five of them playing Verity), making the story universal as well as particular.

Finishing the play, my only wish was for a postscript to let me know whether Verity did make it out of Broadmoor. The thought of this high-spirited, feisty girl locked away for life is horrendous.

Publisher: Methuen (published in Plays By Women Volume 2)

Cast: 5F, 3M (can be played with more actors as all parts are doubled)

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)

196: Letters Home

15 Jan

I was a huge Sylvia Plath fan in my late teens through to my late twenties. The visceral passion of her poetry mixed with her tragic story made compelling drama in my mind. I read The Bell Jar and wept, feeling as though she’d stepped into my head. As I grew older and more settled in myself, I lost my obsession with Sylvia and moved on to healthier role models.

Sylvia Plath with her mother and her two children, Devon 1962

Sylvia Plath with her mother and her two children, Devon 1962

Just out of college, I joined with three close friends to write a play about Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rice. We composed it from their poems and it was a homage to women, to poetry and to passion.

So, today’s play brought back lots of memories. Letters Home was written by Rose Leiman Goldemberg from Sylvia Plath’s correspondence with her mother Aurelia Schober Plath (also available as a book with the same title). Goldemberg has relied entirely on the letters and, surprisingly, not used any of Sylvia’s formidable poems.

It makes for a fairly one-sided play. A play about a relationship between a mother and daughter where we hear, almost solely, the daughter’s voice. But the voice we are hearing is the voice she wanted her mother to hear. There are moments of despair as she battles depression, but also plenty of euphoric, girlish excitement at college, boyfriends, clothes and writing.

What is particularly telling about the letters is Sylvia Plath’s constant putting men before herself. She writes about meeting Ted Hughes:

AURELIA: The most shattering thing is that I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt.
SYLVIA: The strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet, whose work I loved before I met him, a large, hulking, healthy Adam, half-French, half-Irish,
AURELIA: with a voice like the thunder of God! – a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop.

Later, she writes:

SYLVIA: Dearest, dearest Mother,
If only you could see, wherever Ted and I go people seem to love us.
My whole thought is how to please him.
The joy of being a loved and loving woman; that is my song.

When Ted’s book wins a major prize, Sylvia writes: “I am so happy Ted’s book is accepted first! Genius will out!” Followed by, “I can rejoice much more, knowing Ted is ahead of me!” This is a product of the times (the letters were written between Sylvia’s college days in the 1950s and her death in 1963) but also symptomatic of the fault line that runs through their relationship.

I wanted more of the rage that pulses through the poems, like ‘Lesbos’, which finishes with these lines:

Now I am silent, hate
Up to my neck,
Thick, thick.
I do not speak.
I am packing the hard potatoes like good clothes,
I am packing the babies,
I am packing the sick cats.
O vase of acid,
It is love you are full of. You know who you hate.
He is hugging his ball and chain down by the gate
That opens to the sea
Where it drives in, white and black,
Then spews it back.
Every day you fill him with soul-stuff, like a pitcher.
You are so exhausted.
Your voice my ear-ring,
Flapping and sucking, blood-loving bat.
That is that. That is that.
You peer from the door,
Sad hag. “Every woman’s a whore.
I can’t communicate.”

I see your cute decor
Close on you like the fist of a baby
Or an anemone, that sea
Sweetheart, that kleptomaniac.
I am still raw.
I say I may be back.
You know what lies are for.

Even in your Zen heaven we shan’t meet.

Publisher: Methuen (published in Plays by Women: volume two)

Cast: 2F

195: Hidden

12 Jan

Hidden by Michael Rohd and Laura Eason is another play in the Ethnodrama anthology. This one explores the themes of Anne Frank’s diary to look at how they relate to contemporary US culture. Interviews and research were conducted in much the way that any playwright would when writing a play on a particular subject.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank

I find it a little difficult to see what makes Hidden an ethnodrama and wonder if any play that uses interviews with real people as a basis for the play’s development would then be classified ethnodrama …

Perhaps because it was always intended to be a play (as opposed to being academic research that was later turned into a play), I found Hidden one of the strongest plays in Ethnodrama.

The play begins with a monologue from an elderly survivor of the Holocaust. She describes how she was separated from her mother in Auschwitz and sent to a work camp in Germany, peeling potatoes in an SS kitchen for the gigantic German woman who saved her.

Hidden explores the bystander phenomenon physically and through the text. There’s a harrowing account of the murder of all the Jews in a village in Eastern Europe.

JONO: So one day, my father gets me up early in the morning.
RYAN: Now you have to remember, this is Eastern Europe
JONO: He tells me to be quiet, to follow him.
RYAN: the late 1930s
[…]
JONO: There’s a gathering of other men, and boys my age. And women. The women are here, too.
[…]
JONO: I hear the sound of sleepy footsteps. I see the breath of hundreds of my neighbors making a cloud of mist as they wearily, curiously trudge towards the centre of town.
RYAN: You cannot judge my friend.
JONO: And suddenly, I see my friend, and his family in this crowd. And I realize, this crowd – they are all Jews.
RYAN: You cannot hold him accountable.
JONO: And I – I am standing in a mob of gentiles.
RYAN: He was a boy – barely a young man.
JONO: The men around me, workers. They have guns. The women, stones.

Together, the townsfolk kill their neighbours. Wiping out 60% of their community in a single day.

Scenes like this one are contrasted with contemporary scenes where bigotry, racism and patriotism are shown as they affect us now. A girl describes her terror at driving in the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood and finding the road blocked by a van that’s stopped in the middle of the street.

JENN: And there are these two guys, two black guys, just standing outside it talking really loudly. […] I’m trying not to panic, making sure all the doors are locked, trying to figure out what to do and suddenly, I see a couple other black guys join the first two. So, now it’s a group of like 5 or 6, all talking and laughing.

The guys try to get her to drive past but she’s afraid and when two of them walk towards her car she panics and drives the wrong way down a one-way street to get away. Instead of it being seen as an over-reaction, her classmates and teachers tell her she’s lucky to be alive.

While Hidden is most definitely a ‘message play’ and tells rather than shows its stories, it contains powerful messages and some strong and moving scenes.

Publisher: AltaMira Press (Published in Ethnodrama:an anthology of reality theatre)

Cast: 3M, 3F

194: Street Rat

11 Jan

I found Street Rat in a book on Ethnodrama. The play was adapted by Johnny Saldaña, Susan Finley and Macklin Finley from the ethnographic research of the Finleys into young homeless people living on the streets in New Orleans in the mid 1990s.

graffiti rat by Banksy

Street rat by Banksy

The play uses the research, the interviewees’ words and also the poetry that Macklin Finley wrote about the experience. As a play, I found it at times didactic and a little clumsy but this is likely to be a result of trying to turn interviews into theatre without including the character of an interviewer.

When characters articulate their politics and beliefs, it comes across as answers to an outsider’s questions but is presented, unconvincingly, as dialogue between young people.

TIGGER: I know plenty of f*cking straight up prostitutes. They’re cool as hell, but that’s not something I’m going to do.

ROACH: It makes you compromise yourself. People who do it have to be comfortable with doing it. Sometimes people get caught up in it, when they aren’t comfortable doing it, but they do it anyway. That causes so many problems.

The inclusion of Macklin’s poetry worked really well in some instances but in others felt perilously close to self-indulgent. The authors saw it as a Brechtian narratorial device, and it works best when it is making comment on the action, like the following example which followed the dropping of small change at Roach’s feet.

MACK: Three pennies
fall like
rain in
the thunderous
silence after.
Remorse is
a court word
holding no
tender in the
lives of men.

My response on reading Street Rat was that the poems shouldn’t all have been included in their entirety: sometimes one stanza says it all and extending is unnecessary. There were also too many poems so that, by the end of the play, I was becoming frustrated with their inclusion.

For an ethnodrama (a play that ‘consists of dramatized selections of narratives collected through interviewing and participation observation’ Denzin & Lincoln) Street Rat feels as if it has barely scratched the surface of the lives of its subjects. The poetry is real and sincere, but it is the poetry of an educated man, visiting the homeless youth, rather than being their stories.

Publisher: Altamira Press (in Ethnodrama: An anthology of reality theatre)

Cast: 5M, 4F

189: A Disappearing Number

11 Dec

Complicite is one of my favourite companies – a large call when I’ve only seen one of their works, but that one was probably the greatest piece of theatre I’ve ever seen and it changed my view of what theatre could be, so I’m making this rather bold call. I’m also popping in a youtube montage of their productions here, so that you can get a feel for what the company does.

 

There is no author cited on their playscript for A Disappearing Number – instead the company is listed as the author as they devised the show together, the way they do with much of their work. A telling note on the text before you start reading the play itself states that:

A Disappearing Number is a play whose fluidity and use of video, movement, music and sound design, in addition to text, make it largely resistant to attempts to capture and pin down in traditional script form.

There is an attempt to conjure the shifting screens, images, movement and music that are integral to any production, but, as a reader, you have to know that you are reading the bare bones of the story and that you’re missing much of the flesh. Fortunately the bones are captivating and had me mesmerised.

A Disappearing Number is a play about the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (an impoverished clerk in India) and his relationship with a Cambridge mathematician Godfrey Harold. Harold was the first person to read Ramanujan’s theorems and not dismiss them as the work of a madman. It is also a play about a contemporary mathematician, Ruth, and her passion for numbers and the way that passion affects her other relationships. Stories weave and split, time shifts between the early 20th century and now, and much of the action takes place in a lecture theatre.

It sounds as if it could be dull – but even on the page it is anything but. For someone whose eyes glaze over at the mention of equations and formulas, the first few pages of a lecture where Ruth explains the Functional Equation of the Riemann Zeta Function should have had me abandoning the play mid paragraph, but I was hooked from the start.

A Disappearing Number is exciting and mind expanding. Numbers started to appear beautiful – even on the page. It’s one of those tantalising experiences where you begin to feel as if something hitherto unimaginable is almost in your grasp.

RUTH: […] Everywhere the number 24. This is an example of what mathematicians call a magic number. Numbers that continually appear where we least expect them for reasons that no one can understand. And I don’t understand, but they’re beautiful…

AL: How can something you don’t understand be beautiful?

RUTH: Don’t we call something ‘beautiful’ simply because it outpaces us? Imagine we’re on a line. Ramanujan way ahead with Brahmagupta, who invented zero, and me, I’m far behind, if I look over my shoulder I see you.

It may be very hard to define mathematical beauty but that is true of beauty of any kind. We may not know quite what we mean by a beautiful poem, but that does not prevent us from recognising one when we read it.

A Disappearing Number is a truly beautiful play. Apparently the company revived it in 2010. Now I can just hope for Brisbane Festival to bring it here so that all of us can experience it in production…

187: Ruined

26 Nov

Ruined by Lynn Nottage has won a swag of awards including the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The play is a gut-wrenching drama spliced with laughter and compassion. It’s about life in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a group of women who have survived rape and torture only to be rejected by their villages and families because they are “ruined”.

poster for production of Ruined

The heart of the play is Mama Nadi, the owner of a bar and brothel who claims to be a pragmatic business woman but who has a tender heart hidden below her bluster. She refuses to be wooed with fine words or chocolates (Belgian), and won’t have her head turned by sparkly stones.

MAMA: Diamonds are nice, but I want a powerful slip of paper that says I can cut down forests and dig holes and build to the moon if I choose. I don’t want someone to turn up at my door, and take my life from me. Not ever again.

Lynn Nottage is an African American writer who frequently writes about life for African women. With Ruined she has chosen an important and often ignored subject, those women whom through rape and abuse or childbirth gone horribly wrong, end up with fistulas. (The word fistula is never used in the play, but I assumed that the “broken” women who were accused of smelling bad, suffered from fistulas.)

Salima, one of the women in the play tells a horrendous story of being abducted by soldiers, watching her baby daughter murdered in front of her eyes while she was being raped, and then taken as the soldiers’ soup pot, chained to a tree where anyone could have her as their entree before meals. She endured this for five months, but, for her, the worst part was still to come.

SALIMA: I walked into the family compound expecting wide open arms. An embrace. Five months, suffering. I suffered every single second of it. And my family gave me the back of their heads. And he, the man I loved since I was fourteen, chased me away with a green switch. He beat my ankles raw. And I dishonored him?

Salima’s husband has now come looking for her, but she never wants to see him again and Mama Nadi is happy to keep her hidden. But the tightrope she walks between the military and the rebels is stretching thin and when it breaks the haven she offers the women she takes in will be gone.

MAMA: You men kill me. You come in here drink your beer, take your pleasure and then wanna judge the way I run my “business”. The front door swings both ways. I don’t force anyone’s hand. My girls, ask them, Emilene, Mazima, Josephine, ask them, they’d rather be here, any day, than back out there in their villages where they are taken without regard. They’re safer with me than in their own homes, because this country is picked clean, while men, poets like you, drink beer, eat nuts and look for someplace to disappear.

Ruined is a surprisingly sweet play. Nottage has found redemption for some of the characters and the suffering and horror they have experienced are mitigated with a breath of hope. For some, this will be a saccharine, contrived ending, but for others it will be the hope they need to cope with the trauma they have vicariously experienced. Nottage based Ruined on Brecht’s Mother Courage

Publisher: Theatre Communications Group

Cast: 7M, 4F

Find out how to help women suffering from fistulas.