Friday, January 9, 2015

Radiance at Belvoir Street

Image by Julian Meagher
Radiance by Louis Nowra.  Directed by Leah Purcell.  Belvoir Upstairs, Sydney, January 7 – February 8, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 8

Nowra’s stage instructions for the beginning of Radiance state As [Mae] talks she strikes matches and throws them at the chair.  Under Purcell’s direction Shari Sebbens tosses only one match after much talking about burning.  It seems little more than an ineffectual gesture. 

As I read the original instructions, the naked flames on stage, which might number at least ten to point up each of her phrases, culminating in “Everything up in flames”, should shock us, watching in fear of the possibility of a real fire on stage, let alone a fictional conflagration.

Though this production captured the “well-made play” aspect of Nowra’s writing, revealing the truth about the treatment of women by men like the “Black Prince” (and even their sons, the boys who throw rocks on the roof of an Aboriginal woman whose dementia makes her a “witch”), Purcell, as director (and performer in the role of Cressy), holds back from daring to let Nowra’s horror of the chaos in the lives of this woman’s three “daughters” flare up in our emotions as I’m sure he intended.

Only Miranda Tapsell, as the younger child, Nona, is released from constraint and becomes the star of this production.

We take the three women who appear in this play as half-sisters, each with different unknown fathers.  The revelation of the truth about Nona’s birth becomes the central theme in Purcell’s interpretation, giving the production a clear through-line.  But the effect is to weaken the dramatic impact of the older characters, Mae and Cressy.  I think Nowra saw all three as equally essential in what we should feel, as the play and the conflagration become “Just embers now” and the lights fade.

Maybe Set & Costume Designer, Dale Ferguson, could have pushed the conventional boundaries more into the unexpected, again considering Nowra’s descriptions. 

Mae, he wrote, is wearing a “dowdy black frock” ready for her mother’s funeral, after having spent the better years of her life struggling to care for an impossible personality.  Where’s the “dowdy” or the “frock” in her simple petticoat at first, or neatly cut shift dress which covers her later.  A full-on black mission dress might have made the point and strengthened the contrast with the white wedding dress she later wears. 

Nona, wrote Nowra, “enters wearing what can only be described as ‘a little black dress’.  She is also made up as if heading off to a party.”  Written in 1993, this has to mean a short flared skirt with a revealing top.  Perhaps party gear has changed, but though the top was suitably cleft and revealing,  and the bottom was short (in fact, shorts, as far as I could tell from Row H): there was no sexy flaring skirt to make us wonder if she really wasn’t wearing knickers.

Finally there is Cressy, back from London and the world of opera.  Of course, she might have dressed down so as not to embarrass her poverty-stricken half-siblings with her wealth and style, but “She is dressed in a stylish and expensive black dress”.

There is silence until Nona manages to say “You look deadly”, while Mae is so “incredulous” she can say nothing more than “Cressy...”  Yet this Cressy is wearing no more than a slightly fancy jacket with flowery shoulder appliques, over a dress which looks as simple and hardly any different from Mae’s shift dress.  The expected shock of the upper class apparition which creates enormous tension to complete Scene One as they manage to escape the decrepit house for a funeral which no-one else attends, just did not materialise in this production.

I may be justifiably criticised as coming at this view from a background of expectations different from a modern audience (though I should note there were plenty of people of my generation present including a woman whose breath indicated she had had a quantity of wine with dinner and consequently fell asleep and even snored until I regularly elbowed her into some kind of half-wakeful state). 

For a younger audience who may not have known the play from previous productions or the film, Leah Purcell’s presentation took a quieter, less intense approach in which the humour was lighter, and the role of Nona was brought to the fore.  She is the true survivor who completes what Nowra in his note for this production calls her ‘journey into adulthood’; and from the point of view of the history of Indigenous theatre, Nona’s completed journey establishes the place of her culture in the mainstream.

For this reason I can see why Nowra wrote “...what pleases me is how a new production of Radiance returns to where it all began here at Belvoir Street”.  It pleases me, as well, to see Belvoir counter some of the concerns among commentators in 2014 by bringing an Australian Classic to the mainstage.

All photos by Brett Boardman
Leah Purcell (Cressy), Shari Sebbens (Mae), Miranda Tapsell (Nona)
Shari Sebbens

Leah Purcell

Shari Sebbens

Leah Purcell and Miranda Tapsell

Leah Purcell
Miranda Tapsell