Tag Archives: Marcel Dorney

186: Fractions

23 Nov

Marcel Dorney’s Fractions is a brilliant, exciting drama that teaches us as much about history as it does about the present.

Jolene Anderson as Hypatia in Fractions

Jolene Anderson as Hypatia in Queensland Theatre Company's production of Fractions

I was fortunate enough to see the opening night of its world premiere performance and to read the script the following day. This double immersion was incredibly satisfying and I’m glad I had the experiences in the order that I did rather than reading the play and then seeing the show. (This way there were no preconceptions or disappointment over characters not matching my imagination.)

Fractions tells the story of Hypatia, philosopher, teacher, astronomer, mathematician and the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria. Dorney is quick to note that his work is fiction, taking the tiny amount we know about Hypatia and using it as a provocation for some big questions.

While Hypatia is often portrayed as a martyr, Dorney makes her more complex than this. His Hypatia appears proud, cold and stubborn but these are a direct result of her searing intellect. She has devoted herself to learning and to mathematics: there is no place in her life for relationships or ‘petty’ things like religion, love or politics and this is what causes her downfall.

Hypatia is oblivious to the climate outside her library. She doesn’t realise that she is hated and feared for being a pagan in a city that has recently become Christian. When she is advised to convert to Christianity to protect herself and her library, she refuses, seeing it as a betrayal of her ethics.

HYPATIA: I am a teacher of mathematics, Magistrate. That is my one essential quality: as fire burns, or water is wet, I teach mathematics, or I am not.

That quality, in turn, derives from a principle: the search for truth, through rational inquiry. I do not claim to know the truth about the Kosmos. I do claim a dedication – to describing the Kosmos more truly. It is this dedication, and only this, that justifies the breath I draw.

But if I was to use that breath to profess a faith – that I do not share – I could no longer claim dedication to that principle […]

So far, everything I’ve mentioned here is to do with the history but Fractions is also a mirror for us now. Fear of the other, clinging to doctrines to justify hate, censorship of thoughts that differ from the norm, driving out other religions and destroying anything that challenges your faith – these are all just as present now as they were in 400 AD.

The only jarring note in the play (for me) was Dorney’s choice to incorporate contemporary slang in the often poetic and beautiful dialogue. Characters refer to each other as ‘mate’ and ‘kid’, there’s the occasional ‘f*ck’ and each time it happens, the line stands out like dog’s balls.

I understand the reasoning behind the decision to modernise the language. Dorney didn’t want to write a costume drama, he wanted it to be relevant and to speak to audiences right now in ways that they (we) understand. But, for me, each time there was a particularly ocker line I was thrown out of the play and back into my own skin. When Hypatia says, “You gonna protect me, are you, kid?” I expect her to ride off into a Western sunset and the world of the play cracks a little.

Aside from this miniscule quibble, Fractions was an absolute joy to read and to see. It left me with a hunger to know more about Hypatia, Orestes, Kyril and Synesius and with a deep love for the barbarian Rika.

As someone who was born stubborn and sticks to her morals and ethics even when doing so is blatantly stupid and self-harming, I found personal and philosophical comfort and warnings in Hypatia’s story. And her terrible quandary was just as bad as the titular one in Sophie’s Choice. Fearing the imminent destruction of her library, Hypatia has to choose which of the unique, priceless, books to save.

HYPATIA: I have, first, to – find the five hundred books out of eighty thousand, which I can tell you –

– but I won’t.
Let’s consider, instead, that we then have to splinter that tiny fraction into five … each of which has to contain enough of the history of ten separate disciplines, so that even if all four of its sisters were intercepted and destroyed –
When I say ‘we’, of course, I mean me. This is my job.

I had goosebumps and felt sick just at the thought of how much was lost, forever, and the small fraction that Hypatia saved.

If you’re in Brisbane, hurry and see the Queensland Theatre Company production of Fractions before it finishes. It’s also playing at Hothouse Theatre in Wodonga next year.

Publisher: Playlab Press

Cast: 4M, 1F

155: The Knowing of Mary Poppins

23 Aug

I saw this gem of a play a few years ago and marvelled at the story, the language and the gorgeous physicality of the telling. Reading it now, the language is even more impressive.

young PL Travers

PL Travers in 1923 (acting in a play)

The Knowing of Mary Poppins was written in a collective devising process by Marcel Dorney, Leah Mercer, Margi Brown Ash, Stace Callaghan and Carol Schmidt. The play follows the rather eccentric life of the author of the Mary Poppins’ books: PL Travers. Travers (real name Helen Lyndon Goff) was born in Maryborough, Queensland and followed a spiritual and spirited path that took her to England, the motherland she’d been missing all her life growing up in Australia. “It’s not where I come from. It’s where I was born. There is a difference.”

The play is written to be performed by three actors: the nymph, the mother and the crone (the three faces of PL Travers). They also play all the other characters, from Mary Poppins herself, to Walt Disney, and even sunlight.

It’s fascinating to see that Travers followed Gurdjieff, the same guru Katherine Mansfield followed in Alma De Groen’s gorgeous play The Rivers of China.

CRONE: Naturally, many tried to paint him as a fraud. An egomaniac. An opportunist. He demanded and received a lot of money from very rich people.
GURDJIEFF: Shearing sheep.
MOTHER: That’s what he calls it.

As she’s depicted in The Knowing of Mary Poppins, PL Travers was smart, driven, selfish and most definitely eccentric. Her career motivated her at all times as did her spiritual search. In some ways she sold out to Walt Disney: letting him tame and sugarcoat her creation so that the film version of Mary Poppins bore little relation to the woman Travers felt she’d always known.

MOTHER: […] I did like Julie Andrews, she had the nose for the part. Literally, that little upturned snout of hers – quite ravishing. Which only made the antics of that man Van Dyke the more annoying.
NYMPH: And the songs?
MOTHER: She sang them well. It was enjoyable, as a series of colours.
CRONE: But everything at the same pitch. Here’s a talking animal. Here’s a flying table. Whee! Isn’t everything just altogether mad around here!

The play is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a remarkable woman. It’s a delicious taste of her biography, told with all the invention and playfulness of theatre.

NYMPH: Can I tell that story?
CRONE: As long as it’s accurate, which is to say truthful. In other words, poetic.

Publisher: Playlab Press (included in Independent Brisbane)

Cast: 3F

147: Thieves Like Us

15 Aug

Today’s play is unpublished and I only knew to ask for it because I’d read a draft a few years back at Varuna in the beautiful Blue Mountains. Fortunately I still had contact details for Marcel Dorney and he was willing to email me the latest version. (Thanks Marcel!)

binary code

Thieves Like Us was originally commissioned by La Boite Theatre but, sadly, never produced by them. It came to life in Merrigong in 2008 and, so far, is unpublished. It’s a cracker of a play and I’m really surprised that it hasn’t been scooped up for production and publication.

Once again, Dorney’s intellect shines through in the writing and the depth of the subject matter (binary code, anyone?). The play is set in two time zones: 1989 and 1984. Shannon is a young woman with few social skills. She cleans rooms in a hotel for a living but her passion is computers.  When the play begins she is in a police interrogation room with a computer that doesn’t work. Her interrogator is Dr Holly Arrow and she is Shannon’s idol. It transpires that Shannon claims to have hacked into a computer system that Holly built, a system called Lucy that is used by the US government.

Shannon wasn’t hacking the system for any malicious reasons, she thought it was beautiful and saw a flaw in its design and wanted to let Dr Arrow know before someone else came in and damaged it. But Dr Arrow is not impressed or amused.

ARROW: Well – Let me put it like this. This is a person – yeah? – who goes into a building in the middle of the night, bag of tools, dressed in black, takes somes photographs, puts em in a box, and then goes to the architecture firm who designed it and asks for a job. When she’s asked why she broke and entered, she says: “Ohh – I wanted to go to architecture school but they wouldn’t let me in…’

In fact, Holly Arrow refuses to believe that Shannon is capable of hacking into her system. This is partly due to rivalry: she’s the smart woman in the US government – she doesn’t need some cleaner to come and show her up. Then there’s also the profile of a hacker. It matches Robert, the young man Shannon is friends with, and that means Robert must be the brains behind the operation.

Shannon met Robert and his mum Kathleen in 1984 when they rented a room to her. She stuttered, had no money and appeared to be a complete misfit but they let her into their home. I love the way Marcel has written the relationship between Kathleen and Robert, he’s captured the working mother’s stress, fierce love and protectiveness perfectly. And Kathleen also has a nice level of sarcasm and wit.

KATHLEEN: [To SHANNON:] I’m sorry, my son’s not very well. He has a rare brain disease, where he thinks I’m going to go to work and leave him alone with a complete stranger, if you’ll forgive me, Shannon: Robbie, go to school.

The Australian characters are delightful. Holly Arrow is the most difficult character to engage with, but she’s there to provide the tension, to give the corporate line to the others rebellion. The play reads like a crime drama, it’s a page turner and the sort of thing that makes you feel you’re a bit more knowledgeable by the time you’ve finished. It’s also got a lot of heart.

Hopefully it will have another performance soon.

Unpublished at the time of posting.

Cast: 3F, 1M

139: Harriers

7 Aug

I saw Marcel Dorney’s Harriers in production at Metro Arts in 2004. It was confronting and deeply disturbing so it was great to spend some time now with the script, realising some of the intricacies that had evaded me in the first visceral viewing.

Independent Brisbane

Marcel is an incredible writer and Harriers, for me, bore some resemblance to Blasted by Sarah Kane. The resemblance is more than the unnamed war taking place in both scripts and the atrocities happening on and off stage. It’s there in the vulnerable female protagonists and the threat of violence that’s always present. But mostly it’s in the language which is sparse, broken and filled with questions.

Sayn is an Australian doctor in a war zone. The play begins with her in a cave with a badly broken leg. She’s been rescued from an explosion by a young soldier, Bir. Bir is seventeen and he’s been a child soldier since he was eleven. He speaks a little English, but not much and part of the tension in the play is the difficulty Sayn has in communicating with him. Bir has saved her because she’s a doctor, but if he finds she is an American spy (which is his suspicion) then he’ll have no hesitation in blowing her head off.

Bir has a young friend Pauli, she’s a fellow soldier and they might be lovers. While Bir can make himself understood by Sayn, Pauli has no way of communicating with her and is fiercely antagonistic. Sayn is in agony with a compound fracture and Bir and Pauli want her to walk to another camp where there are children in need of help. They try to force her to her feet.

SAYN: – please please please please don’t oh Christ don’t make me walk please –
BIR: All right. All right.

Twelve, twelve hour. Yes? And we are on move.
SAYN: – yes, yes, all right, thank you, oh thank you, thank you.

She cries quietly, biting her fingers. BIR watches her.
BIR: You are in pain.
SAYN: I’m sorry. This is not what I’m like.
BIR: You do not like pain.
SAYN: No. Sorry. This – I am not like this.
She grits her teeth, trying not to cry.
BIR: Here.
(He wipes his hand and offers it to her.) Bite.

Harriers is about our involvement in other countries, training militia or providing arms and then abandoning the rebel forces we’ve trained, leaving them to be decimated or to decimate others.

BIR: I did what they trained me to do. I chased those men through the mountains. They said they would be with us, and they were not with us. Now they’ve come back, and she doesn’t know us. They didn’t tell her about us. […] We’re not here.

You can read the play as a comment on many different conflicts – past and present. But, for me, the message is about the importance of empathy.  As Sayn says, “If we don’t have empathy, we’re fucked. Collectively – fucked.” Sayn is brimming over with empathy – it’s what has brought her to this other land and it’s the reason for her putting her life on the line to help others. Dorney shows that empathy is what we need to distinguish ourselves as human, but that, on its own, it’s not enough to save us.

Publisher: Playlab Press (published in Independent Brisbane)

Cast: 2F, 1M