Tag Archives: Helen Howard

165: The Wishing Well

20 Sep

Michael Futcher and Helen Howard wrote The Wishing Well using three real-life stories as their inspiration: “an uncle lost at sixteen to a hole in the heart, just after World War II; a great aunt from England stranded in Sydney with no promised job; and a Balkan restaurateur who fuelled Australia’s love of Chicken Kiev.”

The Wishing Well

From these three disparate roots, they crafted an epic, moving tale of love, hardship and loss. Edith is the play’s heroine, tough as nails and heavily armoured. She came to Australia in 1931 as a nanny, only to find the family she’d worked for (unpaid) for the whole trip had given her a fake address. Young, homeless and penniless in a strange country, she refuses to give up, even when she falls pregnant after being raped by an employer. The baby proves tenacious and won’t be gotten rid of but when he’s born he’s blue and is diagnosed with a hole in his heart. Edith is told he won’t last the year and she hardens her heart to him, preparing herself for his death. As her son writes in his diary, “she’s not hard. Just well-defended.”

Tim lives until he’s 16 and by then Edith’s walls are well and truly down. She’s protected him and insulated him from the world, keeping him at home, not letting him play with other children but she can’t stop his body from growing and demanding more of his damaged organ. With only books to keep him company, it’s not surprising Tim becomes a writer and a poet, recording his thoughts in his diary.

TIM: My mother’s love burns with a cold, blue flame, which has left its mark on my mouth, on my fingers and on my toes where she has kissed me in my dreams. I think that she has cast a charm on me, pinned it to my heart with a shard of ice which binds me to her and will not let me die if she is near. I am never warm enough, even on the hottest summer day, to melt it.

Edith is an unlikely heroine: her abrasive tongue and hardened exterior are often off-putting, but this is probably true to life. We all know prickly people who resist intimacy even as they crave it.

The story could be quite straight forward but, in typical Matrix Theatre style, Howard and Futcher have added layers to it by jumbling narratives so that the play takes place in two different time frames. One is over a short period in 1950, when Edith takes a job with a Romanian chef opening his first restaurant, The Wishing Well. He believes she will bring him luck and has been watching her ever since he saw her climbing a hill carrying the son who was bigger than her on her back.

The second time frame stretches from Edith’s arrival in Sydney in 1930 to Tim’s death in 1948, with a few flashbacks to the family and life she left behind in England. It could be confusing but the writers make it clear with their clever use of an ensemble to suggest place, time and people with minimal props or setting and with Tim’s ghostly narratorial voice. He gives us the emphasis, letting us know what to watch out for with lines like this one:

TIM: You could grant me my wish, Mum, if you wanted to. Tell me who my father was, and how I was begun. Wealthy but not nice, you said, and nothing more. You used to show me the place … you used to say, ‘This is the left turn I could have taken to avoid you father …’

The next scene shows Edith not turning left and heading for the trouble that ends with a pregnancy.

TIM: Did you make me by day, watching the metal arms reaching across the harbour? Or did he love you in the park, leaves hanging over you, breaking up the stars when you couldn’t close your eyes? Did you love him? Were you suddenly awakened by the scent of flowers you couldn’t name? […] Is that how I came?

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 5M, 3F (lots of doubling – could be performed with a much bigger cast)

103: A Beautiful Life

2 Jul

This is a play that pierces my heart. I’ve seen it in production twice but reading it now can still bring me to tears.

A Beautiful Life

Michael Futcher and Helen Howard wrote A Beautiful Life based on the real story of an Iranian musician they had worked with. In a disclaimer at the beginning of the play they state that, “The true events on which the play is based have been interpreted in a dramatic way and, therefore, A Beautiful Life should not be regarded as representing historical fact.” Knowing that the play is based on a real story makes it all the more powerful and memorable, but it would still be a moving, meaningful work of art without the biographical elements. This is the mark of excellent playwriting.

A Beautiful Life tells the story of an Iranian family fleeing Iran after Hamid, the father, has been imprisoned and tortured for years for helping a friend. Masud turned up at Hamid and his wife Jhila’s family home because he was on the run. He asked for their help without telling them the dangers he was putting them under and, because friendship is not taken lightly, Hamid agreed to help him.

MASUD: There’s something I should have told you. (He reaches for his bag and pulls out a gun.) When I leave here I’m going to have to ask you to get rid of these. You’d have to be careful. There are grenades too. Could you do it?

HAMID: I won’t let you down.

JHILA: (whispering) If I were Masud, I wouldn’t do this to my friends.

The story of what happened to Hamid and his family in Iran and their escape to Australia was the starting point for this play. What makes it work so brilliantly is Michael and Helen’s decision to mix the excitement of the escape with another true story (albeit not one that the family actually experienced).

In Canberra in 1992, Iranian refugees raided the Iranian embassy after hearing reports of an alleged atrocity committed in their country of origin. The event was blown up out of all proportion and the refugees were branded terrorists, placed under arrest and some were convicted. The torture and suffering they had experienced at the hands of the Iranian regime was not considered relevant to their case and our court system silenced them once again.

In A Beautiful Life, Hamid and Jhila go to Canberra to protest peacefully and are caught up in the frenzy when Hamid recognises one of the embassy officials as the guard who tortured him in Iran. Footage of Hamid looking as if he is about to attack the official is used to prosecute him in court. His prosecution in Tehran is juxtaposed with his Australian trial, the same actor who plays his torturer, also playing the Australian prosecutor.

The play is narrated by Hamid and Jhila’s son Amir in a way that’s warm, engaging and that helps move the plot quickly and clearly.

AMIR: Mum and Dad have this habit of getting themselves into trouble. A lot of Iranians do, especially in Iran. I think it’s to do with their in-built love of life being slightly at odds with their Government’s belief that this is a world in which we ought not to live. You endure this life and have fun in the next. Only most people can’t wait that long.

I defy anyone with a beating heart not to be moved, inspired and outraged by A Beautiful Life. Gorgeous drama and definitely worthy of a revival.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 6M, 2F

68: The Drowning Bride

28 May

Michael Futcher and Helen Howard are a theatre making tour de force. They have their own company (Matrix Theatre), write plays together, direct them and are both also very talented actors. The Drowning Bride is a play they wrote based on a friend’s true story.

The Drowning Bride

According to the playwrights’ note in The Drowning Bride, Elise Parups told Michael and Helen that “her grandfather had been a suspected Nazi collaborator when the Germans occupied Latvia, and that she’d travelled to America in the 1990s to ask him about his experiences, and to find out why he had divorced her grandmother immediately after the war ended”. Elise had been very close to her grandmother, their bond shattered only when the beautiful old woman was raped.

It’s tragic and meaty material for a play and asks many questions: can family ties withstand appalling deeds? how does it feel to find out a family member collaborated with the Nazis? can we forgive ourselves for not being there when the people we love need us most?

For The Drowning Bride, the writers changed Elise’s name to Ellen and made a conscious decision not to make Ellen the same character as Elise, to use her experiences but not try to depict her accurately on stage.

The action takes place across times and places as Ellen travels with her boyfriend to Pittsburgh to meet her grandfather, Valdis. We see them in the present and have flashbacks to the war, with Ellen’s grandmother, Sarmitte, and the choices that had to be made to try to stay alive.

ELLEN: Why are you such a cruel, bitter old man?

VALDIS: You want me all singing, all dancing? Elena, we all got to keep going how we can. Not always easy. Sarmitte live the way she had to live. I live the way I had to live.

ELLEN: Both of you miserable.

VALDIS: We survive.

ELLEN: And there’s no such thing as love.

But, of course, there is such a thing as love and Ellen discovers that much of what happened was done for love. This is a play about understanding and redemption and the eternal quest for both.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 2M, 2F