Saturday, May 28, 2016

Motherland by Katherine Lyall-Watson

Motherland by Katherine Lyall-Watson.  An Ellen Belloo and Critical Stages Production at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, May 25-28, 2016.

Directed by Caroline Dunphy; Set and Costume Designer – Penny Challen; Lighting Designer – David Walters; Composer and Sound Designer – Dane Alexander; Dramaturg – Kathryn Kelly.

Kerith Atkinson – Nell Triton; Peter Cossar – Chris & Kerensky; Barbara Lowing – Nina; Daniel Murphy – Khodasevich & Sasha; Rebecca Riggs – Alyona.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 27

My first encounter with Russians in Australia was a friend whose parents had escaped Stalin via the well-worked route through Harbin and China, settling in the western outskirts of Sydney in the 1940s.  My second encounter was in Elena Govor’s book My Dark Brother: The Story Of The Illins, A Russian-Aboriginal Family (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2000).  Her family were members of the Little Siberia community on the Atherton Tablelands around the beginning of the 20th Century.  What fascinating stories were these!

So Motherland turns out to be my third encounter of a very surprising kind.  In a single envelope in 90-year-old Nina’s cardboard box in Brisbane are two letters.  One is in Russian; the other in English.  The letter from Alexander Kerensky explains that Nell has died, but just managed to write her last letter to Nina.  Kerensky apologises to Nina for past misunderstandings.  The letters were posted in Brisbane.

And what an amazing story has Katherine Lyall-Watson created – not only of Nina Berberova’s life but also of the lives of Nell Tritton and Alyona in Moscow, Paris and Brisbane, and the men in their lives, from the time of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917.  

Alexander Kerensky had been Prime Minister in the short-lived government that declared the Russian Republic, before the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917.  The young radical poets Nina Berberova and her husband Vladislav Khodasevich left Russia in 1922 and finally settled in Paris.  The Australian Nell Tritton was secretary to the exiled Kerensky in Paris, returning with him to Brisbane during WWII to escape the likelihood of Stalin using the Nazi occupation as cover to assassinate him.  The Australian white-shoe brigade businessman, Chris, met Alyona in Moscow.  During the Fitzgerald Inquiry 1987-89 he bought for her and her son Sasha the house in Brisbane that Kerensky and Nell had previously owned.  Then he was bankrupted and jailed, leaving Alyona to fend for herself while Sasha insisted on returning to Russia – the Motherland.

The full story of the real life people on which the play is based is even more complicated: though the real Nell Tritton did return to Brisbane where she died, she and Kerensky had married and escaped to America in 1940; while Nina Berberova became a professor at Yale, and later Princeton in America, where she died aged 92 in 1993.

It’s the devil of a story to put on stage in 90 minutes, and I must say that I had to listen especially carefully for the first 15 minutes just to have some idea of how the five actors and seven characters were connected to each other. 

The first aha! moment came when the Paris exiles –the poets and the very much ex-Prime Minister – had to endure a performance by the typically artistically unsophisticated Australian, Nell, of her poem about the beauty of Queensland.  This was not just funny in its own right (however embarrassing to recognise its crass rhymes and rhythms as genuinely Australian), but was the point when the interpersonal relationships began to be established, including the unexpected feeling between Nina and Nell – which Kerensky referred to in the letters in the envelope at the end.

Apart from the fact that all the actors were excellent, the credit for the success of the production goes to Caroline Dunphy as director and I guess to the dramaturg Kathryn Kelly, and certainly to the adept use of sound and music by Dane Alexander.  Despite the complications of a history over many decades in real time, there was a neat sense of how those complications played out to make each woman’s personal story into a sticky web needing a spider’s skill to negotiate.

The special value of the play and its presentation around the country is that it makes you alert to the people living next door and down the street in this multicultural country.  You might pass Nina, Nell and Alyona in the local supermarket.  It’s stories like theirs which make up modern Australian culture.  And I thank Stephen Pike, director of The Q, for bringing this play to our attention.