Tag Archives: theatre

171: The Grace of Mary Traverse

9 Oct

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Grace of Mary Traverse is a political period piece. Set in the 18th century it’s about the journey a spoilt young woman takes to learn to be human.

Timberlake Wertenbaker

Timberlake Wertenbaker

Mary Traverse (most of the names in the play say a lot about the characters) is a young woman being groomed by her father to make a good marriage. She is practiced in conversation and thought, but protected from any knowledge of the outside world or anything that might sully her innocence. Mary attempts to walk without leaving an imprint on the carpet, trying to make herself ethereal and ghostly, as befits a woman.

MARY: I’m trying not to breathe.
MRS TEMPTWELL: Your mother was good at that.
MARY: Was she?
MRS TEMPTWELL: Said it thickened the waist. She died of not breathing in the end, poor thing, may she rest in peace, I’m sure she does, she always did.
MARY: Could she walk on a carpet and leave no imprint?
MRS TEMPTWELL: She went in and out of rooms with no one knowing she’d been there. She was so quiet, your mother, it took the master a week to notice she was dead. But she looked ever so beautiful in her coffin and he couldn’t stop looking at her. Death suits women. You’d look lovely in a coffin, Miss Mary.

Mrs Temptwell, Mary’s diabolical servant, lives up to her name and offers to take Mary out of the house to experience the real world. She sets her up for disgrace to fulfill the vendetta she has against Mary’s father, but she doesn’t take into account Mary’s appetite for the seamier side of life.

Mary lacks compassion or empathy and searches for ways to give herself the power she witnesses in men.

MARY: I’ve seen them walk the street without fear, stuff food into their mouths with no concern for their waists. I’ve seen them tear into skin without hesitation and litter the streets with their discarded actions. But I have no map to this world. I walk it as a foreigner and sense only danger.

Mrs Temptwell offers Mary the key to this male world and Mary leaps at the chance to ‘run the world through her fingers as men do’. She revels in depravity, uses and abuses other women and glories in her power to command and destroy lives.

Wertenbaker’s play is a strong feminist piece filled with humour and lust. The lust is for life, not just for fleshy delights, and in its larger than life grotesqueries it holds a mirror to our paler power plays.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (published along with The Love of the Nightingale)

Cast: 5M, 4F (with lots of doubling)

170: Walsh

4 Oct

Today’s play had me sobbing on my way to work on the bus. It’s rare for a playscript to have this effect on me. Books do it regularly. (Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty was a shocking example of public tears while reading a novel. I cried in three different public places but still couldn’t put it down.)

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

This morning on the bus I was reading Walsh by Sharon Pollock. Her second full length play premiered in 1973 and is an amazing work. It’s a biographical play about Major Walsh and his relationship with Sitting Bull of the Sioux Nation and it’s a heartbreaking historical work about a shameful period in America, Canada and Britain’s history.

I finished the play with a loathing of General Custer (whom we never see in the play) and the cruelness and brutality of the American soldiers, under orders from Washington and aided by Queen Victoria. In an opening address to the audience, Harry (a wagon master) relates the bloodbath at Little Big Horn and explains how Custer used to attack the “friendly natives” (those who had moved close to the soldiers and settlers and camped under an American flag to show their allegiance). His attacks were cowardly in the extreme but one time he chose the wrong group of Indians.

HARRY: And the Injuns at the Little Big Horn weren’t friendly. They were hostile as hell. Sittin’ Bull and the Sioux had listened to the ‘merican government say, “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians, and their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.” They had taken the government at its word – bein’ savages they weren’t too familiar with governments and all, so it was an understandable mistake.

The attack ends in the death of Custer and his soldiers and the American government sets out to bring Sitting Bull and the Sioux to ‘justice’ (despite the fact that they had acted in self defence). Sitting Bull and his people make it to Canada where they take refuge and Sitting Bull makes friends with Major Walsh. Their friendship is the key part of Walsh: a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. But neither of these attributes mean a thing in a period of America’s history where the white man was setting out to exterminate the ‘Injun’.

The fate of the Sioux and of Sitting Bull is enough to make a tough person cry. No wonder I sobbed on the bus and found myself tearing up whenever I thought of the play.

SITTING BULL: In the beginning … was given … to everyone a cup. … A cup of clay. And from this cup we drink our life. We all dip in the water, but the cups are different … My cup is broken. It has passed away.

Walsh is a beautiful, moving play. Despite the lump in my throat, I am still glad I read it.

Publisher: Talonbooks

Cast: 11M, 2F

169: The Love of the Nightingale

3 Oct

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale is a classic tale for contemporary audiences. (Read Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the classical inspiration.)

Painting of Philomela and Procne

Philomele and Procne, by Elizabeth Gardener Bouguereau

Philomele is a young Athenian princess, desperate for knowledge, feeling and passion. She has an older sister, Procne, who is married to Tereus, the conquering King of Thrace. Before she leaves for the far away kingdom, Procne makes Philomele promise that she will come to her if she asks.

When Procne wants her sister with her, she sends her husband to fetch her, not caring that it is a long voyage and that he will be gone for months.

The Love of the Nightingale is set up like a Greek tragedy, with a chorus and the prophesied doom so common in Greek verse. But it has contemporary resonance made all the more palpable by the moment when the chorus goes from commenting on the action to questioning outside the world of the play.

IRIS: To some questions there are no answers. We might ask you now: why does the Vulture eat Prometheus’s liver? He brought men intelligence.
ECHO: Why did God want them stupid?
IRIS: We can ask: why did Medea kill her children?
JUNE: Why do countries make war?
HELEN: Why are races exterminated?
HERO: Why do white people cut off the words of blacks?
IRIS: Why do people disappear? The ultimate silence.
ECHO: Not even death recorded.
HELEN: Why are little girls raped and murdered in the car parks of dark cities?
IRIS: What makes the torturer smile?
HERO: We can ask. Words will grope and probably not find.

Wertenbaker has written a beautiful play, which is much more than a simple retelling of a myth. She even plays with the word ‘myth’: the male chorus ponder its origins and reveal that the original Greek meaning of myth is “simply what is delivered by word of mouth”: that a myth is both speech and the “content of the speech”.

As with Our Country’s Good, there is a play within the play, this time the story of Phaedra, which Philomele’s father uses to try to decipher whether or not he should let his young daughter travel to her sister.

KING PANDION: I find plays help me think. You catch a phrase, recognize a character. Perhaps this play will help us come to a decision.

Later, his wife remarks: “Listen to the chorus. The playwright always speaks through the chorus.” And so we listen closely to the chorus and know for certain that if Philomele goes with Tereus things will end in tragedy, as they do and as they must.

Tereus becomes blinded by lust for his wife’s sister on the voyage back to Thrace and has her escort murdered. He tells Philomele that her sister is dead and then demands to have her.

PHILOMELE: I have to consent.
TEREUS: It would be better, but no, you do not have to. Does the god ask permission?
PHILOMELE: Help. Help me. Someone. Niobe!
TEREUS: So, you are afraid. I know fear well. Fear is consent. You see the god and you accept.
TEREUS: I will have you in your fear. Trembling limbs to my fire.

He rapes her and when she threatens to tell, he cuts out her tongue. But women without voices can still make themselves heard and Philomele gets to take her revenge before turning into a nightingale.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Cast: 8F, 7M, 1 boy (contains some doubling)

168: The Gate Crasher

2 Oct

Stephen Carleton was commissioned to write The Gate Crasher by Griffith University’s Applied Theatre Department for their student production I Will Kiss You in Four Places. Four Brisbane writers were each given the challenge of writing a 20-minute play with at least six characters and only a month to submit the first draft.

I Will Kiss You in Four Places

The Gate Crasher is a play about five friends meeting after the wake of a school friend they’d all admired and lusted over. Jett was the guy everyone wanted to be like or date but he died young in a motorbike accident. The gate crasher of the play’s title is Larissa, who appears to be another girl from school but whom none of them remember although she seems to know everything about them.

MISHA: I still can’t place you, Larissa. It’s crazy, isn’t it? You think you remember everyone from high school, but I look at the photos and I swear—a good third of the faces are strangers to me. All those days—years—of being stuck together. Those hours of torture that drag by during classes you don’t give a shit about. I’ve forgotten it already. Or repressed it. I couldn’t tell you what rooms half of my classes were in. I only barely remember the architecture of the building. I don’t remember what was on the walls. Which rooms were carpeted and which were tiled. Which ones the air conditioning worked in. What was I doing? Walking around in a fucking fog for five years?

At first it seems a relatively innocent reunion at a sad time, but as the play progresses the events become more and more sinister and Larissa’s knowledge of intimate details of their lives goes from being unsettling to downright creepy.

LARISSA: She was always going to marry a rescuer.
KEL: Excuse me?
LARISSA: She used to burn herself with cigarettes. Down behind the bike sheds. She hated herself.
KEL: Can you please stop being an expert on my friends’ lives? We don’t even know who you are.

Stephen Carleton is a master of witty, clever dialogue and has also made a name for himself for gothic tales (Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset) and this piece is a nice mixture of the two. Given the time constraints for writing it, it’s obviously not as deep or detailed as his other plays, but it’s a fun read and lets us discover the dark side of the old school yard … and prawn trawlers.

RYAN I’m sick of prawns. […] Sick of pulling off the shells and rippin’ out the guts. Sick of the cuts and bits of shell under my fingernails. Sick of stinkin’ like prawns even after I’ve scrubbed off six layers of skin trying to get the fuckin’—
KEL Can we leave the fisherman’s vocabulary on the boats, please?

Publisher: Playlab Press in I Will Kiss You in Four Places (published in CD format rather than on paper)
Cast: 4F, 2M

167: Our Country’s Good

24 Sep

I’ve loved this play by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Our Country’s Good is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker. Set in Sydney in 1788, it shows a lowly officer setting out to put on a play with a group of convicts as the actors. Wertenbaker says in her introduction that she was inspired and moved by seeing a performance by prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs. It reinforced for her the importance of theatre, something which comes through loud and clear in Our Country’s Good.

Sidney Nolan painting

Sidney Nolan: Convict, Mrs Fraser and Bird

This is a play about putting on a play, about power and class systems, about whether criminals are born or made and whether they can be redeemed, and also about the importance of education, art and learning.

Ralph Clark is the shy second lieutenant who decides to put on George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Most of his superiors think he’s crazy.

MAJOR ROBBIE ROSS: Filthy, thieving, lying whores and now we have to watch them flout their flitty wares on the stage!


CAPTAIN WATKIN TENCH: We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals. They have a habit of vice and crime. Many criminals seem to have been born that way. It is in their nature.

As they start rehearsing, Clark begins to fall for one of the convicts, Mary Brenham. It could be a fine romance if Clark didn’t already have a wife back in England. Mary can read, a skill rare in the convicts, and Clark gives her the starring role. She is also in charge of copying the script and reading the lines to the others so that they can memorise them.

There are jealousies, rivalries and the constant threat of hanging, seemingly at the whim of the officers, but even the despised hangman, Ketch Freeman, wants to be in the play:

KETCH: Some players came into our village once. They were loved like the angels, Lieutenant, like the angels. And the way the women watched them – the light of a spring dawn in their eyes.
Lieutenant –
I want to be an actor.

Our Country’s Good is full of laughs as the convicts defy the director, refusing to say certain lines, questioning everything and wanting to rewrite the play to make it more relevant to them. This is a play that argues for and establishes the need for theatre. It’s a glorious affirmation of the art form and also has plenty to say about the prison system and the way we used to (and some people still do) think of prisoners.

RALPH: We must get at the truth.
ROSS: Truth! We have 800 thieves, perjurers, forgers, murderers, liars, escapers, rapists, whores, coiners in this scrub-ridden, dust-driven, thunder-bolted, savage-run, cretinous colony.
CAPTAIN ARTHUR PHILLIP: Truth is indeed a luxury, but its absence brings about the most abject poverty in a civilisation. That is the paradox.
ROSS: This is a profligate prison for us all, it’s a hellish hole we soldiers have been hauled to because they blame us for losing the war in America. This is a hateful, hary-scary, topsy-turvy outpost, this is not a civilisation. I hate this possumy place.

Publisher: Methuen

Cast: 16M, 5F (can be doubled and tripled)

166: Box the Pony

23 Sep

Leah Purcell’s Box the Pony is an autobiographical tale, one that I can’t imagine ever being performed by another actor. She wrote it with the help of Scott Rankin and is honest in the introduction about the difficulties that came up with getting a white man to write the first draft of her indigenous story.

Box the Pony

She writes that when she saw the first draft, she hated it. That she told Rankin, “You’re a white male and this now needs a touch of me, the Murri woman humour” and that that was how she started writing. Apparently things got uncomfortable between them and they had to distance themselves from each other until after the opening night, when they could relax and realise they both just wanted the best for the play.

It’s strange to read a play script that is intended for only one actor. I don’t mean this in a one-person show sort of way but in that this is a playscript that is an archival product and a memoir and doesn’t seem to be intended for any one else to ever produce or perform. It’s Leah Purcell‘s story and has been written for her to perform. (I’ve just looked into this and apparently other people have played the role, in high school drama, etc. – but I’m leaving the previous statement as it’s my first response to reading the script.)

LEAH: [picking up a garbage bag, twisting it and throwing it on the stage] Up’ome’der shopping was different for us [thump] there’d be a thump on the verandah. ‘Thanks, St Vinnie’s.’ Mum would yell, ‘Let’s go shopping!’ [Looking through the bag] We go for the good stuff, we had our dignity. Then we’d chuck the bag on a friend’s verandah down the road [thud] and so on down the street [thump]. Later you’d see a kid wearing the garbage bag with the corners cut out. Gunnar, gunnar … They really poor, eh.

As a playscript, Box the Pony is dynamic, engaging and cleverly written. One-person shows can become didactic or overly revealing, more so when they are biographical as Scott Rankin mentions in his introduction to the play: “One of the difficulties of biographical material is that it is easy for the audience to be offended, or feel embarrassed at times – naturally recognising they don’t have the depth of relationship with the performer that can sustain this level of intimate information. It can be like spending an hour with someone you’ve just met while they pour their heart out to you.”

Cleverly, Box the Pony sidesteps these traps by creating another character, Steff. There’s Leah on stage talking about her life, laughing and joking with the audience, and then there’s Leah talking about her friend and enacting some of the things that happened to Steff when she was growing up.

It’s only towards the end of the play that the audience realises that Steff and Leah are the same person, that the domestic violence and despair Steff suffered was actually suffered by Leah. But throughout the play there’s the cheerful, fiery voice of Leah, reminding the audience that she’s a fighter, that she’s not going to take any shit lying down.

LEAH: In Woollahra, people do coffee on the footpath. Now this is hard for a little myall black gin to understand. Because up’ome’der you drink on footpath because you’re not allowed into the pub.
These gubba fellas just don’t do coffee on the footpath, their dogs, which they treat like children, do gunung! That’s filthy. That’s stinkin’, thas dirty that! And they got a cheek to say blackfella dirty!

Having Leah as herself now, a survivor, introducing, commenting on and playing all the other characters in her life gives a sense of perspective and the chance for the play to be both emotional and reflective. She describes the moment when Flo (Steff’s mother/her mother) was dying and making plans for her funeral:

FLO: You make it real flash, Elvis Presley ‘Inspiration’. I want ‘Amazing Grace’ coming in, ‘Lead Me’ when they’re taking me out, and ‘How Great Thou fucking Art’ when they’re putting me in the ground.

LEAH: She was a Christian lady.

FLO: And I don’t want them bastards throwin’ dirt on my coffin either, they’ve been doing that all my life. I want fresh gum tips, new leaves from an old tree.

Leah’s story is inspirational and her bravery in putting it into a play is immense. There is no skirting around the dark issues or her own behaviour. As a memoir and a book, Box the Pony is beautiful. I wish I had seen it in production.

Publisher: Sceptre

Cast: 1F

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)