Queensland Theatre Company
Bille Brown Studio
April 22 – 30 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Based in fact, the epic and intimate Motherland intertwines the sweeping stories of three very different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands.
From the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson has penned a painstakingly researched historical drama about how world-changing events can ripple out and take a terrible toll on everyday lives.
Motherland was first produced by Metro Arts and Ellen Belloo at the Sue Benner Theatre, Brisbane on 30 October, 2013.
Motherland is a sweeping family saga, shifting across time and oceans to bring us three richly textured stories that make our hearts sigh and sing.
If you haven’t seen Motherland, you’ve missed a bold step forward in the shaping of Australia’s theatrical landscape. The sophistication and complexity of its storytelling, and a strong, clear narrative voice gives a nod to our ‘post dramatic’ writers, the likes of Tom Holloway and Daniel Keene.
Having seen the original production at Metro Arts, I miss the darkness and shadows and ambiguity of the first design, which you see in the trailer below (Annie Robertson is Associate Designer this time), but what I love about this version, reworked for QTC, is its clean, slick approach to the storytelling. Writer, Katherine Lyall-Watson, has sufficiently reworked the text to tell the tale without superfluous detail. Using slightly less text, each character is more fully formed than before, and each performer embodies their role with greater depth and empathy than before. Director, Caroline Dunphy, has sensitively and skillfully shaped this piece for a new audience.
Despite David Walters’ fine lighting, against Penny Challen’s squeaky clean all-white set I feel some of the original intimacy is lost, but we’re in the Bille Brown Studio now; it’s difficult to create a small space for a larger audience, and a larger, broader audience is what I wished for Motherland the first time.
Belloo Creative is a marvellous company of four talented and deeply connected women; their work is vital, bringing us stories we may never have known without them. And with the injection of state theatre company funds and a safe, supportive environment, this quietly determined indie company has had the opportunity to stretch their legs. And now we see they’re in for the long run.
The actors are poised to tell a story from the outset, entering from out of the initial darkness and stoically taking their places in the light to the beat of Piaf’s swirling, stirring “padum padum padum”. They never leave the space; everyone is in the story all of the time. And it takes several minutes to establish each story, and for us to focus and settle into each era, and its characters and their accents. The slower pace at the outset is likely deliberate, to allow our ears and eyes to adjust. We do so, quickly becoming immersed in the interwoven stories, the seamless transitions made all the more effective by the old world elegance of Dane Alexander’s cinematic underscore.
One of my favourite Queensland performers, especially after sharing the stage with her during GAYBIES, Barbara Lowing, is Nina, the 90-year old Russian writer; hot tempered, outspoken and often in trouble for speaking her mind…and her fierce heart. Lowing gives a gutsy, beautifully measured performance, taking this thick-skinned, complex character into a grey and gentle space between oppression and self realisation. Nina cares for Slav for years (he’s a weak, sickly, petulant poet) until she can do so no longer, finding freedom in independence. But is it the freedom she’s yearned for?
There’s something fantastic and liberating about playing such a flawed character and Lowing sinks her teeth into this woman whilst retaining a devastating vulnerability. It’s a superb performance; we are transfixed.
Daniel Murphy brings to life both Slav and the boy, Sasha, both difficult and dangerous roles for an actor, with the temptation to overact ever-present. But Slav is as irritating and as brilliant as any self-destructive artist, and the boy like any other boy, uprooted and displaced without a common language or a circle of friends to help him fit in. Murphy perfectly channels the young boy’s mistrust, his discontent and ultimately, his love for his mother.
The inner conflict and sheer strength of every mother is captured more confidently than before by Rebecca Riggs as Alonya, the “lioness”. Riggs has discovered something more to this role and offers a richly informed performance (her warmth emanates fully in the final moments of the play). She falls in love with an Australian businessman and his promise of a place of refuge for her and her son, a new motherland down under, as well as a visit home to Moscow each year. It all seems too good to be true…
Peter Cossar (Chris/Kerensky) has sharpened the Russian accent and let loose on the Aussie twang. The dinner scene, in which we witness both his characters occupying one chair, was the first to be written by Lyall-Watson, and its skilful shape and pace is testament to the success of the connection here between writer, director and actor. The staging is simple, with Cossar seated between Riggs as Alonya and Kerith Atkinson as the Australian journalist, Nell, who seeks the hand of Kerensky. The seamless transition of characters and the clarity of the overlapping, interwoven stories, due largely to Cossar’s ability to switch between his two roles, is outstanding. I’ve not seen more solid or more confident work from Cossar.
Atkinson’s Nell is almost a duel role in itself, as she convinces herself of the life she feels she must lead until her death gives us cause to ponder the connection between self-denial and self-inflicted emotional pain, and the slow demise that comes with chronic illness. Atkinson’s vocal work is precise and her characterisation is vibrant and energetic, wilful and wonderful, making the news of Nell’s passing all the more moving.
Nina’s final words are more fitting than before, simpler and less flowery, reflecting the overall tone of the reworked text, which is sharper and clearer. It’s the truth and tone of the piece now, more than any massive rewrites (although the writer may correct me on that point!) that makes Motherland a defining work, bringing our focus back, again and again, to the incalculable value of our own stories.
The re-writing process fascinates me, and I know it started at Metro Arts, with audience feedback offered directly to Lyall-Watson as writer/usher at the time. I understand that audience members had no idea she was the writer, so offered their thoughts freely on their way out the door; a fantastic opportunity for a writer, to gain insight from the immediate and emotional response from audience members and actors. Lyall-Watson has no doubt spoken on this, but I particularly remember reading what Matthew Ryan had noted about being in the room with the actors for the first reading of his seminal work, Brisbane:
“It never fails to surprise me the difference that a reading can make. You can convince yourself 100% that your script works. But until you have actors saying the lines you’re not really hearing the play. You’re just hearing (in your own head) what you hope it is.
I make a point of not looking at my script at a reading. I watch the actors. I already know what’s on the page. It doesn’t interest me. The best lessons are on actors’ faces and in their eyes. When they connect with each other. When they struggle. A good actor is the writer’s best friend. They will give it their all and tell you what they struggled with. I always try to get the most opinionated actors. The ones who won’t just accept what I’ve done but challenge me with questions and observations of where it fell short. They are in the moment and can often feel the bumps better than I can.
The reading of BRISBANE was a real eye-opener around the structure. What I thought would resonate didn’t. What I didn’t care that much about was bouncing off the walls. The first Act needs a polish but the second Act needs to be completely re-written. Before the reading I was sure it was fine. I was sure it all worked. Now I know how far I have to go. You can never tell the geography until you send out the scouts to see for themselves. If you’re smart, you listen to what they found out there.”
Motherland’s director, Caroline Dunphy, has caressed this text and coaxed this cast out of their original raw performances into another realm altogether, facilitating closer connections and new resolutions within more naturalistic performances. (I imagine this company must have become closer than most; we feel such genuine history in the relationships and we retain such hope for each individual’s future). Dunphy’s talent is this emotional precision: her attention to the delicate detail of each individual in each relationship, though her gift might masquerade as merely* the competent manipulation of the elements and the actors in the space. She’s very humble, and what we see is that there is so little, and yet so much of her in this production… What a beautiful thing for a director to be able to claim.
*As we appreciate, directing is no easy task; there’s really no “merely” about it, but still…
These stories will make you curious about your own… And just imagine if you could have your family’s stories told. Would you not want that history to remain this intriguing, and shared this respectfully, this lovingly?
Motherland is the most beautifully crafted and intelligently delivered story you’ll see on stage this year. Its passion and fierce beauty will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
And once you’ve lived through it you might like to read it. I forgot to pick up a copy of the updated text but I’ll be back at the Bille Brown next month to see Andrea Moor & Matthew Backer in Joanna Murray Smith’s Switzerland. If you have time to read Motherland before then, get your copy from Playlab. And if you’ll miss seeing it in Brisbane, book now and catch the production at a venue near you. You’ll be a richer person for it.
2016 TOUR DATES: