Tag Archives: Australian play

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

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)

180: Cloudstreet

31 Oct

Tim Winton’s classic Australian novel Cloudstreet is one of my favourite books ever. I saw Nick Enright and Justin Monjo’s adaptation for the stage in 2001 and it was five hours of theatrical brilliance. So it was with a little trepidation that I read the playscript: not just because I was messing with precious memories, but because a five-hour play is a long read.


Cloudstreet wasn’t read in a day (it’s taken quite a few bus trips and waiting rooms to complete) but was savoured and enjoyed immensely.

The book and play are both epic in scale, following the sometimes magical, sometimes dreadful events in the lives of two families who end up living together under the one roof. The Lambs are innocent and joy-filled Christians until the death and resurrection of their favourite son, Fish. Fish drowns in a fishing accident and is resuscitated by his mother, only for the family to discover his brain has been damaged and he’s not the same beautiful boy they all adored.

The Pickles are a miserable bunch. Dad is a gambler with a longer losing streak than theMurray Riverand Mum is the sort of alcoholic who’ll sleep with anyone except her husband. Their daughter Rose holds the family together and starves herself.

I adored the way the playwrights managed to keep so much of Winton’s gorgeous prose in the script and was intrigued by the way they used third person direct address as a method for using some of the more poetic language. (I’m trying it in the new play I’m writing at the moment and it’s a liberating device.) Here’s an example which highlights the way it moves the action forward and gives the audience the sort of insight to a character’s thinking you normally only get from a novel.

ROSE: Rose’s dad, Sam Pickles, believes in luck, though he never says the word. He calls it the Shifty Shadow of God. And you never know which way it’s going to fall. Rose has never felt the shadow the way she did today. She knew something bad was going to happen, something really bad, but she never thought the shadow would make her father lose his fingers working on a barge loaded with birdshit.

DOLLY: How is he?

ROSE: Four fingers and the top of his thumb.

DOLLY: The sister told me. His right hand?

ROSE: Yup. He caught it in the winch.

DOLLY: His bloody working hand. A man can hardly pick his nose with a thumb and half a pointer. Well, we’re done, kids, we’re cactus. Thank you, Lady Luck, you rotten slut.

While the book and the production both had me spell bound, reading the play was a different experience. I was surprised to find almost the entire third act felt redundant. The play’s journey seems to be about getting Quick Lamb and Rose Pickles together, which occurs at the end of the second act. The third act has to introduce a new conflict, which comes from a murderous outside force: the Nedlands Monster, to keep our interest. While there are personal resolutions for many of the characters and Fish is finally set free, it really felt like an Act too many.

Third Act notwithstanding, Cloudstreet is still a beautiful and gorgeous play, just as it is a book. It’s the sort of theatre that reignites a sense of wonder in even the most jaded of theatre goers.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 8M, 6F (lots of doubling)