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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

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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

204: Sled

4 May

In the last week I’ve read two plays by Judith Thompson, back to back. My only problem is that I haven’t had time to write about them. (Blame it all on a very exciting trip to Poland and a paper that has to be written for a conference there.)

Cover of Sled by Judith Thompson

Both plays were dark, brutal, strange, disconcerting and beautiful. The one I’m talking about here is Sled.

Sled is set in the Canadian wilds and in suburban Toronto. It’s a play about relationships, regrets and inexplicable violence. The play blends naturalistic dialogue with poetic monologues, each time it feels as if it might be heading into realism and you might be able to relax, there’s a heightened moment that is fantastical and challenging and forces the reader/audience to work hard to make connections.

Annie is a singer on holidays with her husband in Northern Ontario. She sees an owl outside their cabin in the middle of the night and decides to go for a walk in the snow. Two thugs out hunting on snowmobiles see her (or don’t see her) and pretend/believe that she’s a moose. They shoot her and leave her in the snow.

Two scenes later, Annie has a monologue.

ANNIE: This is very strange. This is very strange. My heart is not beating, the blood is pouring, gushing out of me […] I am dying. I will be buried. Deep, unmoving inside a box under the ground, eyes never moving my tongue curling up mouldy inside my mouth these hands folded, living only in dreams, and thoughts, and hurried conversations in front of Steven’s Milk, with dogs pulling at the leash and kids dancing around, “Did you hear who died?” or at the skating rink, flirting, buying hot dogs, “Did you hear?” less and less, and less, present only in my recycled clothes, hanging at the Goodwill, in the hairs I have left in the brushes all over the house, in my fingerprints which will fade in ten years, she disappeared; they the neighbours they will go on and on for years […] and I will have left so little; I wish to leave more on this earth, more than I have (big raspy breath) oh let me go back, to lie naked in the wet cement, to spray paint my name in blue all over my city […]

It’s a long monologue – too long for me to include here – and it is startlingly lovely and terribly, terribly sad.

Sled needs to be read more than once – it can’t be glanced over and summarised. It’s a meaty, confronting piece of work with images and themes that disturb and haunt.

Publisher: Playwrights Canada Press

Cast: 4M, 3F (contains some doubling)

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

202: Generations

13 Apr

Sharon Pollock’s play Generations premiered in 1980. Set on a farm in Southern Alberta, Canada, the play could be about almost any farm in a period of drought, anywhere.

prairies in Southern Alberta

Southern Alberta prairie

The Nurlins have managed to keep their farm when all around them were selling up. They’ve hung onto it through sheer grit because Old Eddy poured his life into the land and losing it now would be a kick in the old man’s teeth. Old Eddy is pushing 80 and lives on the farm with his son Albert, Albert’s wife Margaret, and their son David. David has an older brother, Young Eddy, who has left the farm and become a city-dwelling lawyer.

Generations reminded me a little of Sam Shepard, probably because the land has such a presence in the piece, and the family dynamics feel claustrophobic even in the vastness of the prairie. It’s not as dark as a Shepard piece, probably because almost all the characters are likeable.

The tension in the play comes from external and internal forces. There’s been a long period of drought and the Native Canadians have blocked off the farmers’ access to water from their reserve. The protest is aimed at the government, but it is the farmers who will have to suffer first as Old Eddy tells Charlie, an elderly Native Canadian who he’s known most of his life.

OLD EDDY: The thing is yuh agreed, and now yuh cut that water off, and we’re the ones that’s sufferin’, not the government, the farmers! Why the hell’re yuh takin’ it out on us?

CHARLIE: You’re the only ones around.

OLD EDDY: Hit the government, not us!

CHARLIE: The government don’t use our water.

OLD EDDY: Goddamn it, Charlie!

CHARLIE: Yuh keep right on yellin’. Council says the government don’t hear us yellin’, maybe they hear yuh.

The internal pressure in the play comes from Young Eddy’s return. He’s come back for something and it takes a while to get to the real reason for his return, which is to persuade his family to sell off a section of the farm to float his new business. The internal and external pressures cause the characters to face truths about themselves and bring relationships to a head.

OLD EDDY: To be a farmer yuh got to have a soft spot ’bout the size of a quarter in your brain, and yuh gotta have a strip ’bout this wide a iron in your soul. Yuh don’t have that winnin’ combination, yuh gonna spend your whole life runnin’ scared in this place.

Generations is a family drama about land, place and relationships. It’s an ode to farmers everywhere.

Publisher: NeWest Press (published in Blood Relations and other plays)

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)