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

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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)

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