Posts Tagged ‘charmian clift

23
Mar
19

Hydra

 

Hydra

Queensland Theatre & State Theatre Company of South Australia

Bille Brown Theatre

March 15 – April 6 2019

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

There is this woman, Charmian Clift. And I have to dress up as her and go out and be her.

 

 

A sea change. A haven for creatives. Heaven on earth. Until it’s hell.

 

Sue Smith’s Hydra is the new work we’ve been aching for. More than a simple drama built around the words of one of our most under-appreciated female writers, Hydra is a haunting, unsung song cycle actually, the imagery so Australian in its detail yet so universal in its broader sense. Its glittering prose wakes something. Inner eyes flash open, inner ears tune in and we become aware again of that sleeping voice inside beginning to growl and hum and trill with possibility, and also of that other voice reminding us, be careful what you wish for.

 

On the Sunshine Coast, we are the sea change that others crave. We never wanted to feel as if we were stuck in the city without space and sea and sky all around. It’s a choice to stay here. It’s why we live here. But the lure of the Greek islands remains real to us too, just as it must have been to Charmian Clift and George Johnston then, in the fifties; an ideal expat island lifestyle promising escape from the uninspiring daily drudgery of Australia.

 

 

Smith writes about artists as fallible human beings and not as mythical creatures, capable of changing the world one word, one song, one picture at a time, although once they believed they could. These are the artists who support artists. The women who support their men. The addicts supporting, and enabling, the addicts. And the friends, like family, who make a choice to walk away, finally, after nothing more can be done for the ones we love. And what makes us love them, anyway? Do we even remember? When the end comes, did we ever really know what it was that caught our attention, our whole heart? Does it even matter, when a connection runs so deep, when there is so much scar tissue, when there are so many stories to tell, that the wounds won’t ever heal while we insist on retelling them?

 

It’s not a happy story, although there is joy, wonder and contentedness in the tiny moments.

 

 

Anna McGahan shares Clift’s wounds and words in a way that fills us with wonder, delight, and yes, some despair. Her precise vocal work and the cadence of her speech is naturally lilting and wonderfully poetic without being predictable or pointed or laboured, finding entries into Clift’s language and imagery as if she is opening doorways to a fairy realm. And perhaps she is, giving us a peak inside her bohemian faery bower. Bryan Probets breathes a full life into George Johnston, her famous husband (the author of My Brother Jack), even as the character’s breath fails him. On multiple occasions I wish him ill, hoping his breath will catch for the last time, long before it is destined to do so. At one stage I think he’ll stumble into the sea and drown. Good! No. He stays and lingers, and seethes and rages, and slowly, too slowly, he rots and Clift remains by him.

 

Incredibly, Clift helps her husband to write the great Australian novel in lieu of her own, finally physically placing a canvas cover over her typewriter at one end of the table. The metaphor is plain, as she dulls her light to allow his to shine. And so it is in creative partnerships. Yet her turn will never come. Not really.

 

Narrated by Martin, the couple’s omnipresent Greek Chorus son ( a gentle, patient and emotional performance from Nathan O’Keefe), this tragedy of quite ordinary proportions – excepting the proportion of gin consumed, which is quite extraordinary indeed – is elevated by its language and the intensity of the relationships at stake. Vic, better known as painter, Sidney Nolan (Hugh Parker) and wife, Ursula (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight) are the best buddies who become distant friends, opting for sanity and a life beyond the heady days and nights on Hydra, rather than a sad extension of that period, which is impossible to transfer. The romantic artist’s existence becomes the nightmare of every waking hour; the mythical, miserly struggle just to survive, even in Australia, the lucky country. Let’s leave the discussion surrounding the inexplicable miscasting of the French and Greek roles until another time. Let’s simply agree that it’s always a delight to see Ray Chong Nee.

 

 

Director, Sam Strong, breathes gentle, respectful life into this version of events, crafting each of Smith’s scenes to stand alone in the storytelling, as well as adding, piece by piece, the detail that will urge us to look more closely at our own lives, our choices, our commitments…our worth. Almost in three parts, the journey for which we join these characters traverses oceans and years, and delves into their heaving, sighing, cracking, crumbling hearts. While it takes almost a third of the performance for the actors to settle and simply share their story, this is (unfortunately for first audiences everywhere) a bit typical of opening nights. The last couple of chapters of the story, set in Australia once the couple are perceived to have achieved a modicum of success, offers the most real, raw and honest performances of the evening. It’s almost as if we suddenly reach the real story. These are breath-holding, heartbreaking moments, and there are tears. It’s the women in the audience who are visibly affected. And McGahan’s gin-drunk dancing and weeping and collapsing will be mentioned in our Women in Theatre Bridge Club and various book clubs and other women’s circles, going down in Australian theatre history as one of those, “I was there. I saw her do that” moments.   

 

 

Vilma Mattila’s simple and elegant white design is a dream, so pleasing to those who have been to the islands of Greece and seen it before them, as much as to those who have not, and still long to. Nigel Leving’s darkness, creating the purity and peacefulness – and longing – of nights on the island, and sparkling white daylight, despite the perfectly timed thunderstorm outside in real life, which acts like a footnote from the gods at a crucial moment. Quentin Grant’s composition and sound design lures us into the dream before startling us out of it.

 

These words, though. These words of Clift’s, stitched seamlessly into the text by Smith, are like pieces of glass worn smooth by the sea. The memories of jagged edges are so distant that the gems they’ve become might never even have existed in that form, like somebody else’s version of past events.

 

There’s a deeply felt need here for the woman to exist on her own in order to create, just as Virginia Woolf wrote. For a woman’s most authentic work to be conceived and completed, she must exist in space and time for some time, supported, and utterly alone.

 

There is a sort of dreamlike quality in returning to a place where one was young. Memory is as tricky as a flawed window glass that distorts the view beyond according to the way one turns one’s head. Charmian Clift.