Wednesday, August 10, 2016

LETTERS TO LINDY


Letters to Lindy by Alana Valentine. 

Directed by Darren Yap. Designed by James Browne. Lighting by Toby Knyvett. Composition and Sound Design by Max Lambert and Roger Lock. A Merrigong Theatre Company Production in association with Canberra Theatre Centre. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. August 9 – 13. 2016


Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

 


Imagine if you will, playwright Alana Valentine poring over a vast selection of 20,000 letters, written over the years to Lindy Chamberlain, and held by the National Library of Australia. Now cast your mind back to that fateful day in August 1980 when the lives of Lindy Chamberlain and her family changed forever in an event that divided, captivated and obsessed a nation. There are those among us, who can still remember the reports, the trial, the conviction and the subsequent exoneration. There are those who may have read of the dreadful death of baby Azaria or watched the ensuing media circus that prevailed, or seen the film with Meryl Streep as the tormented, abused and grief-stricken mother.  Today,a schoolgirl stands in front of the exhibit in the National Museum’s Eternity Gallery and asks “Who was Lindy Chamberlain?” It is a question that begs to be answered.
Jeanette Cronin as Lindy Chamberlain. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Letters to Lindy is in a large part an answer to that question. But it is much more than that. In Merrigong Theatre Company’s production under director Darren Yap’s  sensitive, touching , illuminating and superbly  orchestrated direction Letters to Lindy becomes a shining tribute to Valentine’s artistry as a playwright. It is also a glowing tribute to an ordinary mother, whose extraordinary endurance, courage and fortitude in the face of accusation, vilification, blind injustice and cruel judgement triumphed over the dark, vindictive aspect of human nature. However, Valentine’s selection allows no black and white judgement to prevail. She approaches the gargantuan task of selection with a finely honed sense of responsibility, not only as a mark of respect for the ever-present experience of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, but also with a deeper appreciation of the rich tapestry of human opinion and reaction that she proceeds to unfold. Letters to Lindy is not an attempt to change opinion, nor to necessarily judge. It is an attempt to reveal the nature of the correspondent and through it the character of the recipient. The written word is revelation, and Valentine conducts a symphony of prejudice, hate, compassion and love. It is left to an audience to emerge from this theatrical tour de force with a just and humane verdict. I have no doubt that Lindy Chamberlain- Creighton is a woman “more sinned against than sinning”.  Letters to Lindy with all its power, beauty and abiding reason and humanity has not changed, but has rather reinforced my belief in her innocence.  
Valentine’s brilliance is in her remarkable ability to select a theatrical narrative. There are letters to provoke; letters to evoke empathy and tears, Lindy’s favourites to cheer her up and brighten her world with laughter. There is verbatim commentary and trial transcript. There is an hilarious opening song to the second act, and a final moving lullaby to Azaria. The words fly from the page, honest and true from the hearts and minds of family, friends, strangers, children, the accusers, the defenders, the wise and the ignorant, the rational and the irrational. With the deft touch of an artisan, Valentine conjures her exceptional work. At times, performers, Jane Phegan, Glen Hazeldine and Phillip Hinton play the Chorus to Jeanette Cronin’s Lindy. At other times, they morph into the authors of the letters or characters in Lindy’s life. Director Yapp directs his excellent team of professional actors with a keen eye for the theatricality of Valentine’s work, and avoiding the pitfall of documented research upon the stage. This production bursts with the vitality of survival. Injected with passion, laced with humour and daubed with poignancy Letters  to Lindy displays the various shades of Life’s humanity.
Glen Hazeldine. Jeanette Cronin as Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton
and Jane Phegan. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
No newspaper account; no television documentary, no book can do justice to this iconic event in Australia’s legal, political and social history. The art of theatre, when expressed as powerfully as in this play, does far more to reveal the human condition and our response to an event as dramatic as the Lindy Chamberlain case. We are reminded, with startling authenticity and theatrical poignancy and power that at the heart of this event is a woman, a wife, a mother who went on a holiday with her new born child and found herself  and her loved ones engulfed in a nightmare. As Marc Antony says to the gathered crowd in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”

Glen Hazeldine and Phillip Hinton in Letters to Lindy.
Photo by David James McCarthy

Jeanette Cronin as Lindy with Jane Phegan and Phillip Hinton
Photo by David James McCarthy
Merrigong Theatre Company in association with the Canberra Theatre Centre and with the assistance of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and the National Library of Australia is to be applauded for its production of an outstanding play by a luminary Australian playwright, with a  first class director , an excellent ensemble of actors and a highly professional production team.

Letters to Lindy should be seen on every stage. On this Census Day it also provides a telling snapshot of who we are. Don’t miss it.     

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