Sunday, September 9, 2012

Widowbird by Emma Gibson

Widowbird by Emma Gibson, directed by Joanne Schultz at The Street Theatre, September 8-16, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 8

An epic play of mythical proportions, Widowbird is interesting for its ancient Greek tragedy sensibility.  It is still a work in progress, coming out of the Street Theatre’s Hive Development Program.  Emma Gibson is surely a busy bee.  There’s enough honey here to make the presentation of the work worthwhile at this stage, but the royal jelly will take some more buzzing.

The meaning of the title eluded me – until I looked up Percy Bysshe Shelley.  I didn’t understand what he meant either.  But he gave me a clue to the sort of buzzing Emma Gibson might need to make.  Shelley’s rhymes can sometimes be execrable, but Emma needs poetry to give her work regal quality.

Her entirely original folk tale of a woman whose sympathetic tears instantly heal anyone’s illness or injury is exactly on the money in modern times.  Just send $13 a month and the world will be saved.  But what would happen if your charitable tears really worked?  Gibson’s mediaeval-style King just uses the woman’s tears to repair his battalions and keep his wars going until ... well, until he chooses to stop being King, which he will never do.  Political parties of all modern stripes, from Al Qaeda and the Taliban to the ALP or the LNP are not so different in their desire to be in, or stay in, power.

That’s some of the honey – the symbolism which allows you much metaphorical interpretation – but in the second act, where the now blinded woman tries to protect her daughter from the world by blinding her so that she cannot produce tears, we see dramatic quality beginning to gel.  In Act 1 the story is told and acted out with accompaniment on drums and xylophone, all a bit too illustrative rather than emotionally engaging.  In Act 2, the action becomes more central, while the story-telling becomes more explanatory, so we understand and identify with the implications for ourselves and our family relations.  A bit more like Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone.

But the heightened effect of the Greek tragedies was achieved by the dialogue being in verse, not ordinary prose, and sung by the Chorus, with music to which the actors danced.   If Gibson can turn her play into a total poetic work, in words, movement and music, then her symbols and metaphors will begin to vibrate with meaning.  Experiencing a performance will then be a real buzz.

At this point praise must be awarded to Caroline Stacey, The Street’s director and originator of the Hive.  Canberra’s role has long been the incubator of original new work, hiving off performers, writers and directors from myriad small companies to the big cities which think of themselves as the real Australia.  Despite many attempts previously to coordinate our theatrical creativity – think Carol Woodrow (Fool’s Gallery and Wildwood), Camilla Blunden (Women on a Shoestring), David Atfield (BITS Theatre) or the CIA (Canberra Innovative Arts) and maverick David Branson – only recently have we begun to get our act together.

Stacey brings in solid professional help for new writers, like Peter Matheson, one of Australia’s best recognised  dramaturgs, who has worked with Emma Gibson to turn an idea – “For me, this play really began as an exploration of how far a person must be pushed before their goodness is corrupted” – into a story on stage.  Stacey’s abiding purpose is to provide the theatrical “infrastructure” for the writers to transport themselves to a place where they find their “voice”, and thus their confidence, learning the skills of playwriting along the way.

But rather than a linear journey, it’s all about collaboration and networking – buzzing and dancing like bees in a hive – all supported by government through artsACT, the Australia Council through the Local Stages program, and Canberra 100, as well as the ACT Government supporting Gibson to attend the recent Women Playwrights International Conference in Stockholm, where Widowbird was first presented as a reading.

May Stacey’s work continue and grow to match the extensions of The Street Theatre, coming soon.

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