Tag Archives: katherine lyall-watson

205: The Shoe-Horn Sonata

4 Jun

John Misto’s award-winning play The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a moving tribute to the Australian nurses held prisoner by the Japanese in the Second World War. In 1942, 65 Australian Army nurses were among the hundreds of thousands of women and children taken prisoner in Singapore. Most of them died over the next three years, but a few survived the horrendous POW camps and this is their story.

play and woman

Misto did extensive research and vowed to tell the hidden story, the one that governments preferred to forget. Unlike the fallen soldiers from wars, there were no memorials to the nurses or the civilians who were captured and murdered during the Second World War. Misto donated his prize money to their cause and in 1999 at long last a memorial was unveiled.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a play for two older women. It’s a memory play and a play about friendship and broken trust. Bridie was an Army Nurse captured by the Japanese. Sheila was a young girl sent out of Singapore by her parents on a boat that was torpedoed in the harbour.

The two characters are Misto’s invention, but you can sense that many parts of the story they tell are similar to what he heard from many of the women he interviewed. In his author’s notes he writes: “Although the characters of Bridie and Sheila are fictional, every incident they describe is true and occurred between 1942 and 1995.”

To stop the play becoming maudlin with reminiscing, Misto gives his two protagonists a burning problem for the present. After rescuing each other time and again and being closer than many of us ever get to be, Bridie and Sheila have not seen each other since the end of the war. During the course of The Shoe-Horn Sonata we gradually find out why.

And the play’s title? The women formed a choir and used Bridie’s shoe-horn as a metronome.

SHEILA: We forgot the Japs – we forgot our hunger – our boils – barbed-wire – everything … Together we made this glorious sound that rose above the camp – above the jungle – above the war – rose and rose and took us with it. Fifty voices set us free.

BRIDIE: Fifty voices and a shoe-horn …

Publisher: Currency Press (1996)

Cast: 2F (and 1M voice over)

For more information on the women prisoners of war, read this article by Hank Nelson in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial.

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

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

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)

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