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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

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)

198: One Tiger to a Hill

29 Jan

Today’s play was Sharon Pollock’s One Tiger to a Hill. First produced in 1980, this is a drama set inside a prison during a hostage situation.

prison cell

Despite external reviews and recommendations for the prison, the management refuse to make any changes. As a result, an inmate has died in suspicious circumstances which leads to the hostage taking.

Two prisoners, Paul and Gillie, take two rehabilitation officers and a school teacher hostage. Their demands are for an inquiry into the death of the prisoner in solitary confinement, for the prison to implement the changes it’s supposed to be implementing and for a flight out for the two of them.

Being privy to the machinations behind the scenes as the security firm and the prison’s management decide how to respond, means that you know the likely outcome from the beginning. The hope comes from the two people brought from outside to try to negotiate. The play begins with a monologue from one of them.

CHALMERS: For nine years, twice a day, almost every day, I drove past the pen. Grey stone walls, turrets at the corners, bleak, oppressive, looked like a medieval fortress. Whenever I noticed the place, it always seemed to be raining. Sometimes I wondered what it was like being inside, locked up. I suppose there was always this question at the back of my mind and the question went like this – what if? What if the things you hear, the things you don’t want to hear, the things they won’t let you hear, what if those things really happen inside? Would I be any different in essence from all those good Germans who passed Dachau and Buchenwald, and never asked questions?

One Tiger to a Hill is a play about the penal system, about power and about what people will do to maintain it. The thirty years since it was written have aged it: I’d hope that prisons can no longer get away with the sort of abuse that appears to have been rife, and I know that men can no longer talk to women the way the officers speak to one of the lone women in this play (they’d be up on harassment charges if they did).

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

Cast: 8M, 2F

197: Trafford Tanzi

19 Jan

Trafford Tanzi is excellent. Written and originally performed in 1980, I’m not surprised to see that it’s had a renaissance and been in production in America as recently as 2010.

Trafford Tanzi

Claire Luckham’s play is a wonderful mix of physical theatre, live music and wrestling. Yes, all the actors need to be able to sing and to wrestle.

Trafford Tanzi is set in a wrestling ring and is almost vaudevillian at times.The audience is encouraged to boo and whistle and cheer and the action of the story is told through wrestling holds and throws.

REFEREE: Ladies and gentlemen, The Trafford Tanzi Story. See Tanzi grow from nappies to netball. Watch her fall in love, discover the harsh realities of the wrestling world, invent that deadly hold the Venus Flytrap. See her use it to destroy her enemies as she climbs to the top of her profession. […] In the red corner, ladies and gentlemen: Trafford Tanzi. There she is, and she’s just toddling. She’s one year old. A baby. (TANZI falls over and goos.) In the blue corner, her opponent for Round One, her mum, a mum in a million.

Tanzi’s mum calls her daughter over and then pushes her over and sings a song about how disappointing it was to have a girl, while ‘head maring’, ‘posting’ and ‘punching’ her daughter.

The play has a wonderfully surreal quality as it plays with stereotypes, juxtaposes parental and schoolyard taunts with the world of professional wrestling and turns verbal slights into physical abuse. When Tanzi’s husband puts her down, it’s literal as well as figurative. When her Dad browbeats her, her head really does get slammed into the floor.

DAD: (Applying pressure to various ‘leg locks’) Get yourself a decent feller. One that’ll want to marry you, not fiddle about with you up them back alleys. Come on. It’s all your Mum and Dad ever wanted.

TANZI: But it would be the same as up them alleys except I’d be married. (She tries to raise her head through this next but Dad keeps slamming it back.) I don’t want to get married. (Slam.) I want me independence. (Slam.) I want a career. (Slam.) I want to be somebody! (Slam.)

DAD: Somebody! A slut, the way you’re going on. A wife is somebody, isn’t she? Are you saying your mother isn’t somebody?

The play is a strongly feminist piece about a woman finding her own strength and courage but I also liked the way it played with the highly theatrical and staged world of professional wrestling. Trafford Tanzi resonates and amuses on lots of levels.

Publisher: Methuen (in Plays by Women: Volume 2)

Cast: 3M, 3F

 

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