Sunday, February 28, 2016

All My Love by Anne Brooksbank

All My Love by Anne Brooksbank.  Produced by Christine Harris and HIT Productions; directed by Denny Lawrence; Set Design and Lighting Design by Jacob Battista; Costume Design by Sophie Woodward; Sound Design by Chris Hubbard; Composer – Jack Ellis.

Henry Lawson – Dion Mills
Mary Gilmore – Kim Denman

At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, February 24-27, 2016.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 26

When I landed in Australia in 1955, there were no Aussie Aussies, no “mates” of the modern spurious kind, no ockers, and they weren’t laid back, but were generally good blokes who were still occasionally known as cobbers.  Of course, I was a socialist, so in no time at all I discovered Henry Lawson.  But it wasn’t just the politics I found.  There, in ‘Reedy River’, this 14-year-old heard the song of the bush and life worth living:

Ten miles down Reedy River
    One Sunday afternoon,
I rode with Mary Campbell
     To that broad, bright lagoon;
We left our horses grazing
     Till shadows climbed the peak,
And strolled beneath the sheoaks
      On the banks of Rocky Creek.

I was done for: been a bushwalker ever since and could never get the image of Mary Campbell out of my mind.  But who was the real Mary Campbell?  I may have just found out.

Mary Jean Cameron was born in 1865 and probably met Henry Lawson when he was 23 and she 25.  Her father worked on bush properties around Wagga, Coolamon, Junee and West Wyalong.  She became an assistant teacher at Silverton, near Broken Hill, for the two years before she moved to Sydney to live with her mother – and met Harry Lawson, as she called him.

My fate took me to teach in Broken Hill for my first three years, often driving through those places on my way to and from Sydney.  There has to be a spiritual connection, surely?

Anne Brooksbank published her novel  All My Love, in 1991, about the relationship between  Dame Mary Gilmore, née Cameron, (1865-1962) and Henry Lawson (1867-1922).  In 1983 the ANU’s Australian Dictionary of Biography stated:

“Her relationship with Henry Lawson probably began in 1890: in 1923 she recalled that ‘It was a strange meeting that between young Lawson and me.  I had come down permanently to the city from Silverton’.  Her account of an unofficial engagement and Lawson’s wish to marry her at the time of his brief trip to Western Australia (May-September 1890) could be accurate regarding dates, but there is no corroborative evidence.  There was clearly, however, a close relationship betwen them in 1890-95, but it was broken by his frequent absences from Sydney.  Mary’s later comments on his career were always somewhat proprietorial but the extent of her influence on his literary talents and her contribution to his literary education remain unsubstantiated.”

Though he was two years younger, by 1890 Henry was already well known for published poems such as ‘Faces in the Street’, ‘Andy’s Gone with Cattle’ and ‘The Watch on the Kerb’, and it’s interesting to note that his Dictionary of Biography entry covering the 1890-95 period doesn’t mention Mary Gilmore – but does record the publication of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ in 1892 and the major short story collection While the Billy Boils in 1896, saying “It remains one of the great classics of Australian literature”.

In the writing of the playscript, as described in the synopsis for the production at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, the big question – how much is fiction, and how much fact? – is put to rest:

"At the urging of Henry Lawson’s mother Louisa (a famed early feminist), Henry becomes a guide to the young Mary Gilmore, who arrives in Sydney from the country. What follows is a story of a friendship destined for true love and preparation for a likely marriage. Sadly the partnership is thwarted by a deception.

Henry: And if it wasn’t for the letters...
Mary: Ah yes, the letters.
Henry: You’d have waited for me till I came back?
Mary: I wrote to you that I would.
Henry: And I replied that my lover’s heart leapt so I thought it’d never settle back.
Mary: Do you think your mother kept that letter or threw it away?
Henry: Do you wish you’d seen it?

The theft of their love letters by Henry’s mother is not revealed for years to come, by which time their lives have moved in separate directions. But the love remained and is the essence of their story. Their letters to each other form the heart of the play. These letters are on record and have not been altered (other than shortened) although much of the dialogue contained in the script between the characters is surmise."

This is the central shock in the play, as we realise – at the same moment that Henry and Mary realise  – that while Henry was in WA and Mary had taken a room in his mother’s house – and was doing much of the housekeeping work for the busy suffragette – Louisa must have been reading Mary’s letters before they should have been posted for Henry to pick up when he could get into Albany.  Then when letters from Henry arrived, Louisa kept those addressed to her and, presumably, destroyed those addressed to Mary – after reading them, of course.  The evidence was scant, but Henry’s younger sister, Gert, had seen a letter addressed to Mary, but it could not be found when they had searched the house.

The beauty of the play as directed, designed and acted is that it exemplifies the best in theatre – the simple approach.  There are three modes of presentation: each character speaking aloud their letters to the other; dialogue between them when they could be together (in Sydney, London and Bombay); and when Mary speaks directly to the audience as narrator looking back after Henry has died.  The setting has just a small desk and chair stage right, a settee and small table stage left, and upstage centre a rostrum backed by a screen on which significant black-and-white photos are projected to illustrate a location or event.  The stage is kept dim, with specific soft spotlights as needed.  So simple, but so effective – including off-stage gentle, but again significant, piano music.

After recently seeing such ‘modern’ style productions as STC’s The Golden Age and  Belvoir’s The Blind Giant is Dancing, however  ‘big’ and ‘theatrical’, it was so good to come down to earth in The Q to a deeply felt drama of the lives of these two people, done without fanfare.  The acting by Kim Denman and Dion Mills is superb.

Congratulations to the team at The Q and Christine Harris for bringing this play on tour.  We see our real history, not of Aussie Aussies, not ockers, not laid-backs, but of basically good people, cobbers in their own ways, whose lives came together and diverged.  As Anne Brooksbank’s husband Bob Ellis might say, “And so it goes.”

To conclude, and noting that it was probably unlikely that the Mary Campbell of ‘Reedy River’ was a reference to Mary Cameron, since I think the poem was written before Henry met the real Mary, I would like to suggest that Dame Mary Gilmore, awarded this accolade by King George VI in 1937, was perhaps a more understanding feminist than poor Henry Lawson’s ideologically driven but seemingly terribly jealous mother.  Here is Mary’s poem, which may or may not have been in response to the image of Mary Campbell of ‘Reedy River’.

Eve- Song
by Dame Mary Gilmore

I span and Eve span
A thread to bind the heart of man;
But the heart of man was a wandering thing
That came and went with little to bring:
Nothing he minded what we made,
As here he loitered, and there he stayed.

I span and Eve span
A thread to bind the heart of man;
But the more we span the more we found
It wasn't his heart but ours we bound.
For children gathered about our knees:
The thread was a chain that stole our ease.
And one of us learned in our children's eyes
That more than man was love and prize.
But deep in the heart of one of us lay
A root of loss and hidden dismay.

He said he was strong. He had no strength
But that which comes of breadth and length.
He said he was fond. But his fondness proved
The flame of an hour when he was moved.
He said he was true. His truth was but
A door that winds could open and shut.

And yet, and yet, as he came back,
Wandering in from the outward track,
We held our arms, and gave him our breast,
As a pillowing place for his head to rest.

I span and Eve span,
A thread to bind the heart of man!