Tag Archives: Timberlake Wertenbaker

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)

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)

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)